I say to Dave: gonna party like it’s 1399.
He says: let’s go, let’s go, let’s go.
If you came at night like a broken king,
If you came by day not knowing what you came for,
It would be the same, when you leave the rough road
And turn behind the pig-sty to the dull façade
And the tombstone.
My mother died of cancer in March 2006, a few days after her seventy-sixth birthday. She’d been diagnosed in August 2004 and given two to four months to live, but was obviously tougher than the doctors first guessed. Lots of people say this about their parents, I realize. Mothers in particular. Man, but she was tough. And perhaps we say this because we need them to be strong, even knowing that they live with fear and doubt, like anybody else. Knowing there is heartache for our toughest moms.
You could say she was born in the wrong place at the wrong time. Ursula Kuppenheim, in Münster, in 1930; gentile mother, father’s side all Jews. These weren’t great coordinates to land on just a few months before 6.4 million Germans voted Hitler into the Reichstag. So my mother became a “Mischling of the first degree,” as the taxonomically minded Nazis called people with exactly two Jewish grandparents. There was no comfort in the designation. The Nazis were regressive taxonomists, even before 1942, when Eichmann determined that “Mischlinge of the first degree will, as regards the final solution of the Jewish question, be treated as Jews.” Already by 1940, my mother’s paternal grandparents had died as the SS cleared Jews out of the town of Pforzheim. Two months later, her father fled Germany using the single visa he was able to get for passage to Ecuador. My mother, my aunt, and my grandmother rode out the war in Münster, and later, after receiving news that Mischlinge were to be arrested there, in hiding places in and around Aberslow. The family wasn’t reunited until 1948, when the International Refugee Organization arranged transit for the three women from Germany, through Paris and Genoa, then by boat across the Atlantic to a reunion with my grandfather in Ecuador.
Where life began again, in what my mother once described to me as a drifting, dreamlike state: out of place and distant from all the futures she might once have considered likely. Certainly, she couldn’t have imagined meeting my father. In the late ’40s, she was managing a bookstore, the Librería Cientifica, in Guayaquil. My father was working in the Philippine jungle, rebuilding an electrical generating plant. As a kid, I once plotted these locations on a globe and determined them to be almost precisely on opposite sides of the planet. Here was a vector intersect you’d call a long shot, in the geo-statistical sense of it.
But it happened. All that way across the world to end up at the same house party. In she walked. There he was. How do these things happen? We know the rational answer. It’s called a random event, albeit a happy one in this case. All human story is after all, in the eyes of science, the product of quanto-chaotic material unfolding. There is a new canon of rationalist literature devoted to debunking other interpretations, other ways of imagining the fabric of your own life. Fate, destiny, divine will, even luck. All these are romantic or worse: intellectual dummy sucking, as Richard Dawkins memorably put it.
Nonsense, my mother would have said. Stories care nothing for statistics, in either our telling or our living of them. As for philosophical materialism, well, one man’s rationalism is another man’s eugenics program. The Nazis had a material view of my mother: she was a biogenetic phenomenon. She didn’t accept their definition of her any more than she accepted their final solution to the problem she represented to them. It’s to that brutal early schooling that I trace her later tendencies, which coalesced around a single governing principle: you could not allow yourself to be defined solely by your physical properties. There had to be another dimension of the self. Your survival depended on deeper resolution. And while she personally sought that resolution in Christianity, the more practical way in which I experienced her world view as a child during the ’70s was through her committed resistance to consumerism, a material value system very much in ascendancy.
Brand promises were always broken. I don’t remember ever not knowing she felt this way, even if she rarely said so. She lived the message. No television in the house. No junk food or soda in the diet. Homemade clothes, at least until we were teenagers and insisted otherwise. Holidays on the West Coast Trail and in other back-to-nature settings. Once a year, following a successful piano recital, we were allowed to choose a brand name breakfast cereal (for me, always Captain Crunch). Otherwise, it was homemade granola and tiger’s milk, an orange juice and brewer’s yeast concoction we downed in a series of grimacing gulps.
In the Brady Bunch ’70s, in shag-carpeted then groovy West Vancouver, these practices made us nonconformist freaks. It wasn’t a matter of self-denial. I understand this now. On my mother’s part, it was self-affirmation. Specifically, a removal of the self from the governing ambit of commerce and fashion, a wilful conviction that connected her to the beyond.
And here is where I believe she sourced that conviction: she didn’t believe that her birth happened in the wrong place at the wrong time, nor that it was a chance occurrence. She believed it happened as intended. Of course life’s material phenomena were real, notably Hitler’s existence and much later the fact of her metastasized colon cancer. But the cause and effect at play in the world and in her body were not the essential story. The essential story was that because they were intended, her life and all lives had intrinsic, ineffable value derived and defined not by organic materials or physical properties or consumer goods, but by their meanings. In other words, derived and defined in a way inaccessible to either markets or science. Derived and defined spiritually.
“Religious” was never quite the right word for her, though. Her faith had no overarching ritual. She was antipodal to religious ceremony, it now seems to me, to codes and rites either Catholic or Protestant, including this very pilgrimage. She was instead a product of personal belief and reformation. Charles Taylor’s “disembedded” individual, unplugged from the hierarchies that would define and destroy her. Yet choosing to live her life as if the spiritual were bound up in the physical, the musical soundtrack playing endlessly behind the toy-strewn family room scenes of her mother-of-five life.
Mischling of the first degree. If my mother had had a coat of arms, the motto might have read: Says you.
We cross Cantabria into its forested western reaches, past the sprawling estuaries of the Tina Menor and Tina Mayor, past the flat expanse of inland water reflecting the sky, past the blue-green hills, past the clouds shooting in to gather at the foot of the Cantabrian mountain range paralleling our path from the Basque country behind us all the way to the Galician border. Climbing the long slope into Asturias, we get lost in a hillside eucalyptus forest short of Unquera. We end up following a narrow track kilometres past a marked turnoff, swatting bugs in the heat, running gauntlets of thorns, while below us through the fragrant trees we can see the road we’re supposed to meet dropping farther and farther away. We stop and retrace our steps, trying different trails that all fringe out to nothing in the brush. It takes several hours before we make our way down and across the valley — overheated, scratched, sweating, irritable — and climb the final steep stone path to Colombres, where we’re planning to stay.
It’s approaching that summit that I get my first taste of pilgrim euphoria. Endorphin flows, runner’s high — it belongs in that group of phenomena. The sudden head rush sense of your own movement and power, like the thrill of liftoff in an airplane, only writ down to human scale and speed. As I climb the hill, I feel that chain of thousands of steps, hundreds of thousands now, carrying me upward and upward. I feel the earth roll under my feet as if propelled by my very motion.
I take my own picture at the crest of the hill, camera held out at arm’s length. There’s a capilla de animas here, a little chapel set up for recitation of the angelus. I don’t know the prayer, but I’m gripped by a feeling, an exhilarating sense of lessening, the world briefly rendered inconsequential. A summit feeling. The photo later reveals me to be grinning a bit madly, seized by the moment and out of breath.
I have no pictures of the moment just following, however, maybe fifteen minutes later, when Dave and I discover that both hotels in Colombres are closed. That we must carry on to El Peral, a series of gas stations and truck stops on the highway to Villaviciosa, where tankers and big rigs howl by, and none of the restaurants are open, and the bartender who handles room keys at the motel ignores our presence, clearly willing us to carry on out of his jurisdiction. Dave and I with our packs at the bar, ready to crumple from fatigue. Twenty minutes spent wondering if we’re sleeping under a hedge or hailing a taxi to the next town or what.
So that summit feeling of immunity does not last. The world returns. But with the world also comes a young woman, who intervenes and talks to the man in Spanish. I can tell, from hand gestures, facial expressions, what this is all about. She’s saying, Come on, they’d like a room. One room with two beds. Peregrinos. Yes, they’re peregrinos. Just give them a room.
Up and down. This is the inner and outer topography when you walk for weeks on end. Once you’re locked into it, the trek becomes an endless cycle of arrivals and departures. Always entering or leaving some fold in the land, climbing or dropping off a ridgeline, a valley behind or in front, the roll of a hill stretching upward or downward ahead of you. After 300 or 400 kilometres of walking, it seems I’ve been coming forever on some new set of views and possibilities. Another paradox for my list. That the real constant of the trail should be this ever-changing sameness of the landscape. That and the sounds of sheep and cowbells, the hovering cries of birds.