I remember well the day when hiking with Nannette and two other friends on the Camino, we reached a restaurant that was open, in Guemes, the town that was at our destination, only to learn that the albergue was still another 1.5 km beyond.
That day, I just wanted food and a beer. You may remember that that’s frequently what I wanted!! Our two friends went ahead. Nannette and I sat outside at first, but then she left for the albergue, and I moved inside, enjoyed a meal, and then paid my bill.
I went to use the toilet, located in a small closet-sized room, with the sink in a separate area. When I exited for the sink, there was a man wearing a bright green bicycling outfit there washing his hands. He looked up as I opened the door, and said, in Spanish that I didn’t quite understand, “Did you lose your hiking poles?”
After some gestures, and monosyllabic English words I understood what he was asking, checked my pack, and to my panic, which must have shown, I said, “they’re gone!”
“Don’t worry,” he said, “I found them and have them.”
He’d given them to the bartender who had them behind the bar, and when I came into the restaurant from the toilet, he gave them to me.
My new bicycling friend said, “You’d best be more careful!”
I thanked that guy about a million times, retrieved the poles, and as I left he again reminded me to be more careful!
He was right. Poles were a crucial piece of my Camino equipment especially with my leg problems. I found poles lessened the strain on my legs. They dispersed the work of walking to more muscle groups. So, crucial, yet also disconnected from me. More than once, I’d left then behind and had had to walk back to get them, to this degree: others who knew me would ask, “do you have your poles?”
Like a pilot going through his checklist before a flight, I developed the habit of checking for my poles before departure.
Another similar piece of equipment was my hat. A great relief from sun and rain, it also was crucial. But I managed to go through three of them.
My first one left me on the third day on the Camino, to my dismay, apparently seeking another owner.
My second one, I adopted after it had been left behind by another pilgrim and perhaps left behind for good reason. It was a weather-beaten, kind of hokey, full of holes, formerly stylish golf hat. I wore it proudly for a week before finding my third one for purchase. Nannette told me she would miss that hat!
The one for sale was at another albergue where four of us had stopped for a break. That green hat even had the yellow arrow of the Camino on it.
After buying it, I asked if the hostess would like to keep my previous golf hat for someone in case they needed one. The hostess looked at me, looked at the old, beat-up, full-of-character hat, smiled at me and said, “No señor, no, el es para la basura.” (It goes in the trash.) This may tell you what shape it was in!
I’d worn the new hat for two weeks, when on the day I had left Grace behind in Ribedeo and continued on the bus on my own, I thought I’d lost that new one. The day my daughter Grace and I parted company, in order to give my feet a break, and in order to finish by September 21st, I chose to bus one stage.
Grace and I had arrived at the bus station and discovered that the bus I wanted was leaving in four minutes! We’d planned to be able to sit waiting the hour until her bus. I anticipated that time as a reflection opportunity on the ten glorious days we’d spent together, but instead, we had this rushed, fast “Goodbye,” a quick hug, “it’s been great,” I said, threw my pack beneath the bus, boarded and sat in the dark bus and couldn’t stop the tears for a time. I feel first.
Once I reached Lourenza at 9 am, the bus stopped near the famous monastery of that community and across from a bar, which was open(!), and serving food along with my favorite morning drink, “té con leche caliente, por favor.”
There were three other pilgrims there eating, they spoke no English, so we spoke very briefly in Spanish. I enjoyed my tea and breakfast, said goodbye to them, and left to begin the trek.
I’d gone about an half hour when I realized my hat wasn’t with me. I took off my pack and looked inside, not finding it. I thought I’d left it at my table and began to head down the hill again.
I met the three Spanish pilgrims coming up the hill and asked if they’d seen my hat at my table in the bar.
“Tu sombrero?” They asked.
“Si, mi sombrero.” I responded.
“No, señor, no,” they said. They hadn’t seen it.
I continued my hike back to the bar to look, hoping I hadn’t left it on the bus.
As I hiked down and down the steep path to the town, I kept hearing the persistent whisper of the Spirit, “check your pack again.” But I pushed aside the Spirit-thought. I had looked, after all, I thought, as I hiked on. (Thinking: God must not know I already checked!) After another half hour I reached the bar and sure enough as my Spanish friends and God had assured me, my hat was not there.
I then took off my pack, opened the top pocket and there, right on top, smiling at me, “Mi sombrero!”
So I hoisted my pack back on my shoulders, and retraced my steps up the hill, chuckling at myself, and apologizing to God!
Later that day I passed the three friends from the bar–
“Que encontró su sombrero!”
(You found your hat!) They proclaimed seeing it on my head!
“Si! Mi gusta mi sombrero!” (Yes! I like my hat!) I told them.
Both these items, poles and hat, were necessities for my journey, yet I frequently left them behind, as if they were much less important than they were.
As I’ve been living in Ireland I have a regular routine I go through checking I know where my wallet, my keys, my pack, my water are before leaving the house. But I have found that there’s something that I can just as easily forget here as I left behind hat and poles on the Camino.
This was a surprising thing to discover.
It was a Thursday night and I’d been invited to an evening storytelling gathering in the local artsy community of Kinvarra, 6 km from my cottage. My host had invited me to come, saying she planned to be there too. So after a day filled with adventures outdoors, I ate dinner in Kinvarra at “The Tide Full In” — this incredible Italian place- and then went to the gathering.
My expectations were very different from what I experienced. There were four people there when I arrived. I didn’t know who, if any of them, were new or experienced, but greeted them and sat down. I hoped to understand how this group was run, what types of stories, what openness they had to other stories. I kept expecting my host to arrive, but she never did.
Others came. In the end there were ten of us. I found out later that five of us were there for the first time, the four who were in the room ahead of me when I arrived and myself. They also didn’t know who was coming, nor whether I was a precious attendee.
It is strange to experience something new like that and then, later, discover what it could have been. I didn’t want to take charge. I didn’t want to be the loud and obnoxious American introducing myself around. At the restaurant where I had eaten dinner, there was such a “loud, obnoxious, living up to the stereotype” American. He was embarrassing. Yet in not wanting to be that, I had forgotten something essential. I am nothing like that stereotypical American. And in my desire not to be like him, and in my hesitation with a new place and people, the part I left behind was, this may sound odd, myself.
That’s a curious thing to say, I realize, but truly accurate. The night was curious. When the leader arrived, there were no introductions. I discovered this group only meets monthly, it is new, and since we were in the month of October and Halloween, the leader, Tommy, a young bearded man who’d brought his 14 year old daughter with him, thought he’d center stories around the traditions of that season. The sharing was less like storytelling, than like sharing of experiences. A thin, bearded, actor from Galway named Jonathan arrived late, and told some riveting stories from his life, in a true storytelling manner.
Eventually he told a famous ghost story from county Clare, Ireland, as well, which I could have done without. Strange how an eerie story can stick in the mind and normal sounds of the dark and stormy night suddenly sound sinister.
I sat there, loving story, loving to tell them, but so uncertain of myself. It was an experience of having arrived without “me.”
Later God compared this to poles and hat– that I’d left myself, my joyful, laughing, personable, real self behind, forgotten perhaps at my dinner table. And had been quiet, reflective, incredibly self-conscious.
I did tell one biblical story connected to the theme, but I missed much more of what was possible.
The next morning at the farmers market I ran into a couple who had also been there and we were able to share our experiences. That’s when I began to realize how little of “me” had been there. The phrase “Mi sombrero” has taken on a whole new meaning– not just for what I wear, but who I am! “Mi gusta mi sombrero!”