From El Camino Santiago de Compostela: Sleeping with Strangers

One of El Camino’s most palpable blessings is the presence, even if not the intimate company, of other pilgrims. I walk through an open field landscape and can see pilgrims on the road ahead of me. Others walk past me and greet me with, “Ola. Buon Camino”. They are making their way to Santiago Compostela in their own ways. No pilgrim’s road is the same. We are re-integrating and re-fashioning new perspectives of our own “inner geographies” with each click of our walking sticks. Some angel is talking with Jim Gravois every time he exhales, “La vita ê bella. Merci, Saint Jacques.”

I was in the Navy the last time I slept in a barracks, but a military dormitory doesn’t do justice to the night culture of a Refugio. The only image that comes close for me is the time I went with friends to a house boat in the middle of a Louisiana swamp for a weekend of netting and eating crabs. We slept in close quarters. We pissed off the side of the boat. We unconditionally surrendered to the flies.

In the Refugios women and men sleep side by side, up by down, to one another. A room in a small Refugio can have six bunk beds in small rooms. Twenty-eight people can be bedding down together for the night with only two showers and two toilets in a uni-sex bathroom to service all of them. Being packed in like the poor soon becomes more natural than a private room. Everyone seems unfazed as the way we spend our nights pivots toward “and now for something a little different”.

There is a courtesy among strangers in the Refugios that is exceptional. The smooth and unruffled intercourse among perigrinos is not easily explained. What minimalist accommodations that we couldn’t imagine submitting to a month before starting El Camino have become for us a school of new manners. I hear no complaints, no bitter exchanges. I don’t even hear jokes alluding to our ironic intimacies. Perhaps everyone doesn’t expect anything else at the cost of 7 euros a night.

If pilgrims are flirting and sharing kisses with one another, I’m unaware of it (of course at sixty-six I’m unaware of a great deal that might have caught my hungry eyes in the past). A few nights ago in Puente La Reina, Gravois and I stayed in a Refugio that was once a seminary. It still bears the name of Refugio Seminario. As Jim and I walked to a bar to use the internet, he offered up the observation that there was probably less sex going on in this pilgrims’ Refugio than when the place was a seminary. I laughed at his wit, but also realized that Jim’s senior years might likewise be blinding him to any erotic exchanges being staged in front of his nose.

El Camino does, however, exaggerate the pleasures of a good night’s sleep and a good morning’s bowel movement. And then,  the constant anxiety about getting a bed the next night does dampen erotic enthusiasm for anyone who might snag that empty bed before we do. When I stop for a rest and to drink some water, the wave after wave of pilgrims passing me by, greeting me with their cheery “Buon Camino’s”, provokes only fear. I delve into my El Camino guide book by Brierly to scare myself to know just how many Refugio beds the next rest stop will offer. I flirt with despair that there will be no room at the next inn for me.

Before my El Camino is over, I’ll be sleeping outside on the ground—some of my comrades have already had to lay down on concrete. I console myself with the knowledge that I’ve already taken a crap twice in the woods (exceptionally good moments for reasons I cannot explain), so perhaps I’m ready for the total Monty of roughing it. When I was at L.S.U., finishing up my bachelor’s degree, I remember walking to class with a girl I liked who suddenly turned to me and, as if reading my mind, said, “My mother once told me that there was nothing more over-rated than sex and nothing more under-rated than a good shit.” I remember being shocked at the time, but these days I judge her mother wise.

It could be an arctic myth, but the Eskimos are reputed to invite their old folks to ride out on an ice floe that’s about to break away and so spare the community its need of having to provide them more food. I notice how I am dedicating a large percentage of this reflection to sex and bowel movements. It could well be that I’m not as ready to go out on the next piece of black ice as I have imagined. “Merci, Saint Jacques.”

Here’s a podcast from “in the field” featuring my pilgrimage partner, Jim Gravois:



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