The Yellow Brick Road

Turn left, the yellow arrow said. So I turned left. Then the yellow arrow told me to turn right, so I turned right.

It was my first day off on the Camino de Santiago, but I could not stop following those arrows. I was like a wind-up toy, putting one foot mechanically in front of the other. And before I knew it, I was back at the Plaza Mayor in Burgos, right where we had finished walking the day before.

As I walked across the square, I heard someone singing in English, but with a distinct Irish accent.


Come out, come out, wherever you are
And meet the old man who fell from a star.
He fell from the sky, he fell very far.
And Wisconsin, he says, is the name of the star.


Wisconsin, he says, is the name of the star.

Caitlin bounced across the square and gave me a hug, followed by a beaming Josef. It was good to see them again. It had been a few days.

‘So, you’ve heard,’ I said.

‘Heard?’ she said. ‘You woke me up, Tom. You fell from the top bunk and then you just climbed back up and went to sleep.’

‘Strange,’ I said. ‘I don’t remember a thing.’

‘Well,’ Josef said. ‘We were rather blootered that night.’

They had just arrived in Burgos. They asked about Cathal. I told them I had bumped into Cathal a couple of nights before, at the hostel in San Juan de Ortega. I was heading out for dinner and drinks with some other peregrinos when Cathal hobbled into town. So he dumped his pack at the hostel and joined us.

Although we both liked to walk alone, Cathal and I had walked together to Burgos the following day. When we arrived at the Plaza Mayor, Cathal had gone off to find the hostel and I had gone off to find a hotel. My left tendon was swollen, I badly needed a good night’s sleep or two and my clothes badly needed a wash.

‘He’s gone,’ I said. ‘He left this morning. I think Cathal was desperate to disappear into the meseta. He’s getting pretty gimpy. He can barely walk without that stick now.’

turn left

I met Cathal at the Auberge du Pèlerin in St-Jean-Pied-de-Port on the French side of the Pyrenees, about five hundred miles from Santiago de Compostela and the standard start of the Camino Francés. Like most of the hostels on the Camino, it was bunk beds, shared bathrooms and communal dining.

Before dinner that evening, we were asked why we were doing the Camino.

‘We are here to find ourselves,’ we all said.

‘I am here to lose myself,’ Cathal said.

When I reached Roncesvalles on the Spanish side of the Pyrenees late the following afternoon, Cathal was already there, drinking beer outside a bar with a couple of other Irish pilgrims. Cathal told me to grab a chair and join them.

‘Have you heard about the couple from Cambridge who got lost up there?’ I asked, after getting myself a beer. ‘They wandered for five days, drinking from cattle troughs. They finally decided to make a huge cross out of their fancy walking gear and were spotted by a helicopter.’

‘How very pilgrim of them,’ Cathal said.

Cathal told us he had done a PhD in Philosophy at Trinity College but, unable to find a job in Ireland, he was now teaching at a community college in some small town in the boondocks of Michigan. Josef told us he was a primary school teacher, a singer of show tunes and the owner of a flat in Dublin with some serious negative equity. Caitlin told us she was originally from Galway, but she had been bumming around the world for a few years now, making and selling jewellery to get by. English, she told me with some pride, was not her first language.

Before we knew it, we had missed dinner. Then we had to run to the hostel, our packs bouncing off our backs, before they bolted the doors, like most of the hostels on the Camino, at precisely ten pm.

We gathered again the following afternoon at the hostel in Larrasoaña. It was a blistering hot day, so we went looking for a bar. The only bar in the village was closed, but it had a pleasant veranda alongside a rather refreshing river, so Cathal, Josef and I plopped down in its shade, hoping the bar might open soon, while Caitlin walked down the road, hoping to find someone selling beer. Before long, Caitlin swaggered back, a big bag of cold beer in each hand.

‘They do dinner, too,’ Caitlin said. ‘In fact, the woman said they are the only place in town that does dinner. It looks more like a family home than a shop or a restaurant but, hey, they sell cold beer and they serve food. Otherwise, we starve again tonight.’

So we drank the beer and went for some of that food. There was a single family-sized table, already half full with other hungry peregrinos, a couple of whom were also Irish. The menu that evening was caldo de tomate y patata (or tomato and potato soup) followed by fabada (or a traditional stew of pork and beans), plus, of course, all the local red wine we could drink.

Cathal asked if he could have something vegetarian instead. The woman paused, cocked her head to one side and looked at him, one-eyed. She might be able to make him a tortilla de patatas. Would the gentleman who does not eat meat eat that?

The one-eyed looks did not stop. Why did he not eat all his soup? Did he not like tomatoes either? Where was his fork? What had he done with his fork? Why did he talk so much? Why did he drink so much? Eat. Eat. Eat.

In the corner sat an old upright piano, its paint peeling. Josef asked if he could play it.

‘You want to play my piano?’ the woman said, giving him the same sideways look.

‘Yes, I want to play your piano,’ Josef said. ‘And I want to sing some songs.’

So we asked for more wine, Josef played the piano and we all sang along, including the one-eyed woman, who pulled up a chair, poured herself a tumbler of red wine and sort of hummed along.

We sang ‘Getting to Know You’ from The King and I, ‘Oh, What a Beautiful Morning’ from Oklahoma! and ‘Summertime’ from Porgy and Bess. We sang ‘As Time Goes By’ from Casablanca, ‘My Favourite Things’ from The Sound of Music and ‘We’re Off to See the Wizard’ from The Wizard of Oz. We ended the evening with the Irish pilgrims singing the Irish national anthem, or ‘The Soldier’s Song’, in Irish.

‘Book Irish,’ Caitlin whispered somewhat drunkenly in my ear.

Our next few gatherings at the next few hostels always began with Caitlin plonking her left foot onto my lap and ordering me to pop her blisters. She was walking the Camino in a pair of well worn running shoes, which many pilgrims did. Some pilgrims even trekked in sandals, with no apparent problem. While her right foot was perfectly happy with its old shoe, Caitlin’s left foot was clearly not. Fellow peregrinos would often stop and stare, as I popped blister after blister and applied plaster after plaster, even asking if they could take a photograph of that freakish foot.

turn right

We did not want to walk together to Burgos.

Cathal and I enjoyed the social side of the Camino once we arrived at the hostel, but we both preferred to walk there alone. In fact, I was somewhat surprised at how much I missed the group following my fall from the top bunk at Torres del Río. I had walked on to Navarrete the next day, while Cathal, Josef and Caitlin had shorter walks, stopping early at the hostel in Logroño. I had not seen any of them for days, until Cathal hobbled into San Juan de Ortega. But on the walk into Burgos, Cathal and I kept bumping into one another, the Camino obviously wanting us to walk that stretch together, whether we did or did not.

Cathal told me he had not seen either Josef or Caitlin for a couple of days either. He said he felt torn between wanting to be with the group and not wanting to be with the group, so he had walked faster and further, putting some distance between him and them, including that long walk the day before into San Juan de Ortega. His right knee was screaming at him to stop or at least to slow down, but Cathal refused to listen.

‘You know what the anthropologist Victor Turner says about groups on pilgrimage,’ Cathal said.

‘Never heard of him,’ I said.

‘Well, Turner says, when you go on pilgrimage, you not only leave your home behind, you also leave who you are behind and you become someone else somewhere else. Pilgrims, he says, experience something he calls communitas, the opportunity to dress like a bum, behave like a tramp and become part of a hobo community, with everyone putting themselves in the same lowly place as everyone else. In other words, you socialise with people on pilgrimage you would probably not socialise with at home. No offense, Tom.’

‘None taken,’ I said.

‘Turner argues that the essence of the experience is the period between the destructuring of our everyday lives at the beginning of the pilgrimage and the restructuring of those lives at the end of the pilgrimage. He even calls that period anti-structural, potentially socially subversive, but with a strong sense of disorientation, of feeling rather lost.’

‘Speaking of feeling lost,’ I said. ‘Have you seen any of those yellow arrows lately?’

‘The theologian Frederick Ruf argues that not only do pilgrims experience a strong sense of disorientation,’ Cathal continued, obviously ignoring my question, ‘but pilgrims go on pilgrimage desiring that disorientation, wanting to disrupt the orientation of everyday life, craving rupture and bewilderment. We go on pilgrimage to be among strangers and to feel strange ourselves, to lose ourselves and our homes, especially who we are when we are at home, to rupture the me, he says. Ruf defines pilgrimage as an extended period of disorientation followed by an intense moment of orientation, considerable confusion followed by a moment of considerable clarity.’

‘Is that what you think, too?’ I asked.

‘I don’t know about pilgrimage,’ Cathal said. ‘But I think the Camino is probably the longest pub crawl on the planet.’

‘I agree with you there,’ I said. ‘But I disagree with both of those guys about pilgrimage. My experience of the Camino has not been a strong sense of disorientation. Just the opposite. For me, the Camino has been an obsession with orientation, almost an addiction to orientation. I see those yellow arrows and my legs won’t stop walking. I wake up every morning craving those yellow arrows, not rupture and bewilderment. I hear those Munchkins in my head all day long. Follow the Yellow Brick Road. Follow the Yellow Brick Road. Follow the Yellow Brick Road. It’s compulsive. Hypnotic even.’

‘Are you craving those yellow arrows now?’ Cathal asked. ‘Because I haven’t seen one for a while.’

‘Do you know that Woody Allen joke about being hypnotised, thinking he’s a fire engine?’ I asked.

‘Never heard it,’ Cathal said.

‘Well, he is on the sofa one night, watching television, some entertainment show with a hypnotist. The hypnotist is hypnotising some guys from the audience, telling them, you think you are a fire engine. He falls asleep. He wakes up, turns off the television and feels this compulsion to put on his red flannel underwear. Suddenly the phone rings, he runs outside and races down Seventh Avenue, making siren noises. At an intersection, he meets another guy in red flannel underwear and they decide to work together. They start running downtown, when two guys wearing red flannel underwear pass them, running uptown. They think they must know where the fire is, so they turn around and follow them. I don’t remember how the joke ends, but pilgrimage is sort of like that for me. Walking the Camino is sort of like wearing red flannel underwear, thinking you’re a fire engine.’

‘That reminds me of a story by Paul Bowles,’ Cathal said. ‘Do you know the story about the professor who is turned into a dancing machine by a nomadic tribe in the Sahara?’

‘Don’t know it,’ I said.

‘Well, he is a professor of linguistics who goes into the desert to research some Arabic dialect and this tribe kidnaps him, cuts out his tongue and dresses him in these strings of tin cans that jangle whenever he moves. He becomes the after dinner entertainment, made to dance and make strange animal noises that they find funny. Anyhow, his life is reduced to eating, shitting and sleeping. When he is told to dance, he dances. He doesn’t understand their language, he can’t speak and he doesn’t have to think anymore. The end of the story is a bit complicated but, basically, he is eventually taken to a town where he has a chance to escape. But rather than running up to the French soldier for help, he runs right past him, back into the desert, bouncing up and down, jangling his tin cans and making those strange animal noises.’

‘Hey,’ I said, pointing down the path. ‘See that? Turn left, it says. You see what I mean? You cannot get lost on the Camino. Unless you’re from Cambridge.’

‘If those eejits can do it, I can do it,’ Cathal said.

When we arrived at the Plaza Mayor in Burgos, we agreed to meet for dinner. I told Cathal I would come to the hostel at half past seven. I found the hostel faster than I thought I would, conveniently located just a couple of minutes from the square. I was early, so I sat down outside a café not far from the hostel and ordered a beer. At about quarter past seven, I saw Cathal come out of the hostel, look slowly up the street towards the crowded café and then hobble as fast as he could in the other direction, his walking stick clacking loudly on the cobblestones.

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