At eight in the evening the sun was still well above the horizon and at such an angle that it reflected off my cart and into my eyes.
Savannah walked with the side of her vest brushing my right leg and the crown of her head pressed against the back of the cart. The shadow cast by the cart kept Savannah in the shade so she probably didn’t need to wear her vest but the July sun in Spain was harsh so I left it on in case she strayed out of the shadow.
With the strength fading from my legs I pushed my cart up another hill. At the top I felt the wind run through my shirt. I sighed in relief. The wind died then picked up again stronger than before. A billow of dust swept along the wheat field to my right then into the street and passed over Savannah and I.
I shut my eyes and tucked my head down, feeling the dust cling to my sweaty arms.
Then the wind was gone. Savannah sneezed a few times.
In front of the harvested wheat field was what looked like a small park behind a stone monastery. I paused at the crest of the hill, but still didn’t have a great view of the clearing since it was at about eye-height.
The next town was six miles ahead and from where I was standing I could see nothing but rolling farmland and vineyards ahead. There would be plenty of secluded places to camp if I kept walking.
I didn’t want to sleep in a vineyard though. The orderly rows made spotting a tent between them too easy. I wouldn’t be able to sleep soundly knowing I could be seen from the road.
I could sleep in a wheat field, but with the heat wave had scorched the land and I’d likely be assaulted with multiple dust clouds before the sun was low enough for me to crawl into my tent without baking inside it.
In truth, the chance of passing dust clouds were a minor reason not to sleep somewhere. I’d slept in sweltering jungles, mosquito-buzzing swamps, and tarantula-infested palm plantations. But sleeping in those strange and extreme places not only taught me I could survive a few discomforts for eight hours, but that when there was a ready-made campsite I should take it – even when that meant calling the day a bit early.
I continued down the road to the front of the monastery. That there was no one in the inside was the first thing I needed to know.
The entrance was a wrought iron gate locked by a tangle of heavy chains.
At the sight of that I turned around and took a path up and behind the stone monastery. The clearing was at the height of the second story. The space enclosed by a short stone wall consisted of dried grass with a tan stone path cutting through it and a stone alter along the wall furthest the monastery.
I parked my cart by the alter.
Savannah sprinted down the stone path then sniffed along stone wall and marked it in a few places.
While Savannah got her bearings, I examined the grass to see if there was anywhere flat enough I could set my tent. I couldn’t kick off my shoes and relax until I was satisfied this place would really make for a decent campsite.
Once I’d found a few flat areas I thought would work, I unbuckled my backpack and dropped it beside my cart. Then I withdrew Savannah’s bowls and sat them on the first step of the alter. I filled one bowl with water. Savannah came over and lapped at it. Within a minute she drank the liter of water I’d emptied from my Nalgene.
I stripped to my shorts and cleared another day of grime off me with baby wipes.
While I was wiping my neck, a tan bony dog came bounding around the corner and up the path. At the sight of Savannah the dog froze as suddenly as though it’d been caught by an invisible leash. Savannah looked up from her bowl, water dripping from her chin, spotted the dog, then charged.
The thin dog yelped, hopped, and spun around all at once. Savannah slid to a stop where the other dog had been the moment before.
A voice called from around the wall. “Flaca! Ven acá!” Skinny! Come here!
A man with the same bony features as the dog came striding into view on the path at the end of the clearing. He stopped to squint beneath his leather hat at myself and Savannah but was quickly satisfied and moved down the path and out of view.
He reappeared in the road and glanced over his shoulder to me. When I held up my hand he nodded and looked away. He followed a path through the vineyard across the street. His tan dog ran ahead of him.
The sight of the man had me reconsidering my decision to stop. I was in Europe, on the Camino. I had little true concern about being robbed in the middle of the night, but old habits born of Central and South America told me to pack and find a secluded place to camp.
I ignored the anxiety prodding those old habits. They weren’t needed here.
I dropped myself on the steps of the alter. For dinner I drank a liter of strawberry yogurt I’d bought in the previous town. Savannah chomped at her food.
After the yogurt I was tired and full and I leaned back on the steps and looked out to the vineyard beyond the monastery.
I didn’t have many thoughts. Only that it was a good spot and that I was glad to arrive early.
In the morning I’d have a two hour walk to the next town. That was further than I would have liked, but not unbearably far. I wouldn’t make coffee. I’d walk the two hours then be rewarded with a nice café con leche.
When the sun was closer to the hills I set my tent. I didn’t think there were any thorns where I’d set it but I couldn’t be sure so I slid my tarp below my tent for some added protection. In Mexico I learned the price of not clearing the ground or placing a tarp beneath the tent – my mattress deflated in the middle of the night and in the morning I was left searching for and patching half a dozen punctures.
At dusk I clambered inside the tent and read A Little Life. I’d traded two books for it with a friend back in San Sebastian. It was a tomb of a book and not much of a page-turner. To cut down on weight I ripped out the pages as I read them, but that generally amounted to two or three pages a day.
This night I ripped out two pages but afterwards thought I should have kept them because I’d already forgotten what they said.
Outside Savannah was patrolling the grounds. She growled often, but I knew the difference between a chasing-off-a-mouse growl and a something-big-is-approaching growl.
Laying in my tent while the light faded I watched Savannah patrol and was filled with a great warmth in my chest as though I were sitting beside a fire. With increasing frequency, when I looked at Savannah in the evening, I thought of life after the walk. I imagined a few acres in the pine barrens where I could sit on the porch and Savannah could come and go from the house as she pleased.
In those dreams I saw a wife too. Someone I would be proud of and someone who would be proud of me.
My thoughts of a wife were becoming an obsession similar to the ones which used to be attached to realizing The Walk, to being a writer, and to being a photographer. Nearly every time I paused the thoughts crept in.
I understood where it came from; I’d been alone on the road for three years, I was twenty-nine, and I’d always been someone who leaned heavily on a best friend.
But on the road this desire was a sickness.
All the obsessive hopes and planning which circled my head inevitably funneled to the same dead-end. There could be no love for another three years. The day before I turned twenty-six and walked out my front door I chose The Walk over everything else.
I rolled over on my sleeping pad, keeping my sleeping bag tucked tightly beneath me, and stared at the pinprick stars far above the terra-cotta roof of the monastery.
The cool night air whirled into the tent and soon I was asleep.
Then a moment later there were footsteps crunching gravel and I was shot full of adrenaline and sitting straight up. Savannah barked a something-bigger-than-me-is-coming bark, then growled severely.
I peered out the tent and saw the silhouette of a man standing about twenty-feet away. The sound of crunching gravel had stopped so I knew the man had paused once he heard Savannah.
Savannah was just in front of the tent, tail curled upward and the hair on her back raised into a mohawk.
After a moment my eyes adjusted enough to see the silhouette was holding walking poles and all the adrenaline left my body as quickly as it entered.
I was expecting pilgrims, but it was still pitch-black outside. It must have been four-thirty in the morning.
I unzipped the tent and patted Savannah on the back. She jumped at my touch.
“It’s alright,” I said to her. “Relax. Relax.”
Then to the pilgrim, “Pasa.” Meaning, go ahead, pass.
The pilgrim’s headlamp came on and with the light I couldn’t see him at all.
I held Savannah’s collar. She growled and her head tracked the pilgrim as he passed.
“It’s alright. Relax.” I patted Savannah on the side.
With the pilgrim gone I zipped my tent and collapsed back onto my air mattress feeling a bone-entering weariness. Moments later I was in a deep sleep.
But then there were multiple footsteps crunching along the gravel path and Savannah’s growling was renewed.
In a half-sleep and without getting up this time I said, “Savannah, relax, it’s fine.”
And she stopped growling.
As the pilgrims passed they looked at the tent and Savannah and the light from their headlamps filled my tent like the burning midday sun. I rolled away from their blaring lights in annoyance.
More pilgrims filed by and eventually I accepted that I wouldn’t be falling back asleep. I laid on my back and allowed the flashes of light into the tent and the sound of boots hitting the path wake me.
The were filing by – a deluge of pre-dawn ambition released from the Albergue where the night before they had shared meals and socialized and slept beside loved ones. How easy it was for them to move lightly over the earth after such immeasurable bounties.
I turned to my side to see Savannah.
She was curled tightly just outside the tent.