Between Heaven and Hell

It was somewhere between one tiny pueblo and another on a dusty trail along the Camino de Santiago. Everywhere around was the colour of sun scorched yellow, the trail, the wheat fields, the vegetation-less hills even the clouds that I kicked up in my wake were yellow. The only things that stood out from what seemed like the never ending yellow, was the concrete of a bridge that I could see far in the distance to my left and the cerulean clear sky that stretched from East to West and North to South above me. A little while before, I had been walking with a man who called himself “The Man without Time”. I wasn’t totally sure what he had meant by calling himself this, did he mean that he wasn’t a prisoner to any rule of time and that his name was exactly the opposite of what he said or was it that he was in such a rush that he literally had no time left to spare. After he bolted on ahead of me and became swallowed by the horizon I guessed that it was the latter.

The afternoon sun was beating down hard on my head, I was still new to this game of walking for hours on end and of course I was quite ill prepared. My feet were covered with blisters and the blisters that I got on my blisters were becoming even more agitated by the salty sweat that was building up in my socks. This part of the Camino was called “La Meseta” but I had come to call it after the part of life that it most reminded me of, “Adolescence”. It was known for being the most difficult part of the Camino de Frances, the part where, after learning to walk you learn to buckle down and walk for long periods of time over this monotonous terrain that gives no sign of life or anything until you are upon it, it’s the part where you learn that the way is a struggle, a life-less desert, with only a few precious oasis’s in which you can rest you’re weary bones and kick back and drink and eat in the name of life, it’s the part where you most importantly learn that nothing can be accomplished with ease but every precious thing is worth fighting for. As I spoke to a lot of people on the Camino they spoke of skipping this part of the way ‘because there is nothing to see there’ and they would be right, there is fuck all to see there and it is a miserable, hard place to spend days trapped inside, but, they were myopic, they didn’t see the long term lessons that you could learn from such an environment and they didn’t realise how much sharper your eyesight would become to the beauty of the world after leaving such a barren place. For me it was a place where instead of looking around me at the wonders I was surrounded by, the monotony of it forced me to dig elsewhere for a source of profundity and on “La Meseta’ I found myself digging inwards towards my soul to where I had buried the most difficult of questions and even more difficult answers.

It was after about three hours walking or give or take fifteen kilometres when in the distance through the mirage I could see that I as coming to a Y in the way. I wasn’t sure if it was the heat playing tricks on my mind (I had heard stories of that happening to Peregrinos that left them lost and confused and in a different direction to which they had intended on going) or if was actually seeing the Y. Sure enough 15 minutes later when I arrived at it there it was, two dirt tracks going in different directions, split in the middle by one of the many, many, many wheat fields. The area must have been the bread and beer basket for the whole of Spain as it was the only crop that would grow in such a dry place. The way seemed to go in both directions, giving no clear indication of which was the right way or which was the wrong way, but very definitely, very clearly, separate directions. Suddenly I noticed something that I hadn’t seen before, something that was quite rare to see in this place. To the left of the way there stood a solemn squat tree that was just big enough for me to squeeze under and get some shade. “I’ll wait here till another peregrino comes along and tells me which way to go” I thought to myself as I unbundled my back pack and crawled into the shade. The ground beneath the tree was parched from the length of time that it had gone for without a sip of water; it made me thirsty just looking at it. I took off my t-shirt and wrapped it around my head in the vague hope that a slight breeze would dry my sweat soaked body but it was impossible, there was no breeze to be found beneath the mid-day glare in this place. So I settled for a drink of water as I stretched out my limbs in the cool shade. It occurred to me all of a sudden that it had been quite a while since I had seen any other peregrino in some time; it must’ve been an hour or an hour and a half at least. This was quite surprising because it was mid-August; peak season for tourists and travellers and up until now the trails had been flooded with the hopeless wanderers making their way. And so Thus began the monologue I had with myself; “Maybe I took a wrong turn further back on the path, that’s why I’ve arrived at this Y in the way now” I questioned myself “but no, no that’s impossible there were no other turns for me to take, it was just a straight way, I couldn’t possibly have taken the wrong path there was no other one to take” I answered to myself, “now, now, don’t be too hasty to strike that possibility from my mind think is it possible that you were so wrapped up in your own thoughts while you were walking that you might’ve missed a turn?” I once again questioned myself, “No I definitely, definitely didn’t miss a turn” I remembered “I was walking with The Man without Time and then he disappeared over the horizon and I haven’t seen anybody since then, but there were definitely no other turns”. I took a sip from my water bottle and stared longingly into the distance from whence I had come, desperately waiting for a figure to appear in the distance, hoping that somebody, anybody would appear to give me guidance, hoping that I hadn’t walked for three hours in the wrong direction and that I would have to return to the last pueblo I was in with my tail between my legs. I had a deep seething feeling in my insides and knew that I would have to make this decision on my own.

When the figure I was waiting for never appeared I began to dig inwards searching the cavity of my soul for the questions that I hadn’t allowed myself to question on any normal day when I had other distractions to keep my mind away from them. But now here they were glaring at me as strong and as powerful as the sun and I began talking to myself as though I was another person “What are you doing with your life?”, “What are you doing here walking across Spain alone?”, “Why are you doing this?”, “Where are you going”, “WHERE ARE YOU GOING???”. It was in the midst of this inner discussion I was having with myself when I turned my head to look once again the Y in the road that was the cause of all of this anxiety when a sudden apparition came over me. Without warning I could see my whole future displayed out in front of me and the separate paths were not just separate paths but the different ways in which I wanted to direct my life. The left path signified security, a good life, continuous love, a wife, kids, a home, a car and general happiness, but, it also signified the death of my dreams, that I would not anymore be the writer that I wanted to be, that I would not anymore be the fun-loving wanderer that I had always imagined myself to end up being. I would be just a great normal person who people within my family, loved, admired and respected and when I came to the end of my days I would live on forever in the hearts and minds of my descendants, the strong family line, concreted in history. The road to the right signified adventure, the crazy life I had always wished for and imagined where I became an adored writer for pushing the boundaries  of society, For breaking the mould and not accepting anything less than magnificent, the glorious writer who fucked his way across the world and experienced every single emotion that the human body was willing to furnish, but, it also signified one of the things that I had always feared , loneliness, a string of heartbreaks, broken marriages, broken vows and broken homes, kids who I didn’t know and who didn’t love me, leaving me to die alone by my own hand, but again, I would find companionship with my readers who wept and laughed over my words and I would live on forever in their hearts and minds as a great man, concreted in history.

Either way the way I saw it I was that I was going to leave a legacy in history, my line would continue as I guess that’s all any man really wants to live his life for. But which way did I really want to live it; did I really want to go through all of that pain to be a writer? Did I really want to give up my whole life, my dreams and ambitions for the safety of security? What kind of a woman would love a man that gave up his whole self to be with her? Is that really a man at all? Was it just an illusion of love and I would secretly be deeply depressed anyway? What good was it travelling around the world and achieving my dreams if I had nobody to share them with? I could share them with my readers I guess? But nah, they wouldn’t be real people anyway, just mental projections of my consciousness. Even though the choices of where I was going were now distinctly laid out for me, a thousand more complex questions filled my brain making me nostalgic for the first round of simple questions I had asked myself, making me wonder why the fuck I had to ask the first round of questions in the first place, like I was after picking open an old wound and now there was a fountain of blood gushing forth. How does the old proverb go “let sleeping dogs lie”.

Frustrated I picked myself up from under that old tree from which I had been sitting under and marched myself towards the Y in the road, kicking the dust as I walked, cursing the damn place I had landed in, cursing whatever reason it was that landed me in such a horrible predicament, cursing the horrible extremes in which I had to decide between. It was as I got closer to the Y was when I saw it, I was looking at it wrong the whole time, the Y that I thought was a Y the whole time wasn’t a Y at all but a three pronged fork in the road. Through the wheat field slap bang in between the forks led another way, less beaten, more rocky and hidden from sight. Instantly I knew that this was the way for me, it shouted out for me to take it, that it was the right choice, that it would lead to the best and although admittedly the worst of both ways. In frantic excitement I ran back and strapped my backpack on and hurried down the little badly marked way through the wheat which slapped against my bare torso.

Half an hour up the trail it began to open into a wider way, making it more comfortable to walk on giving me a slight indication that I had taken the correct way. Purple Mountains appeared on the zenith showing me the first sign of change in the landscape that I had seen in the last seven days I had been on La Meseta. Thoughtlessly I reached back to grab my water bottle from the side pocket in which I had always kept it. My hand floundered in the empty pocket and my other hand shot back to see if I had stuck the bottle in the other pocket but to my dismay it was also empty. I instantly ripped my bag off my back in panic but I knew before the bag touched the path that I had left the water bottle underneath the tree in my rush to get up the trail, “FUCK!!!” I let shout in my exasperation, for I knew how dangerous it was to be on the way without water, I knew how many people died of thirst from such a simple error, I knew I was an idiot for leaving it behind and not being more careful and unfortunately one thing I didn’t know was how far it would be until the next place I could get some water. “Fuck it” I muttered to myself begrudgingly putting my bag back on, some thirsty peregrino behind me might be happy of the bottle. I couldn’t see any sign of civilisation my side of the mountain and the sun would still be burning everything, including me for the next few hours. As I picked my bag up I saw an opening on the left side of the path, the word “safety” entered my head and knew that this was just one of those trials that I was going to go through, to test my patience with the way that I had taken “no, I’m going to stick to my guns and continue on this chosen trail, I’m sure it will provide eventually”. Sure enough, a short time later I came across something I hadn’t seen in a long time, a clear watered stream. The sun shone straight through its waters and glimmered on the blue oval shaped rocks that lined its bed. I pounced on its soft shores ready to lap up the water straight into my mouth but this was when I finally realized what the shell I was carrying on my backpack was used for. I scooped cold lashings of water into my mouth with the shell, allowing myself to wallow in the joy that every drop of it brought complete respite from the heat of the sun. After I dunked my head into the stream and soaked my t-shirt in its waters I continued along up my trail. Now that I was refreshed and the pangs of thirst had abated I began to become bored and anxious to reach the mountains as they drew ever nearer to me and I was nearly in my shadow. Unannounced a way to the right opened up, it looked like a more direct route to the mountains and it even looked like it went through a grouping of trees. Once again I felt it was another temptation into another way so I stuck to my guns and stayed on my route. Before long and quicker than I had imagined I was beneath the shadow of the purple mountains and it was getting cold now as the terrain began to change and I began to gradually climb upwards.

The purple shale surface of the mountain left it very difficult to follow the trail. Everywhere looked the same and the only thing I had to go on was that the rocks were more broken in some places from the rare footprints that had trodden upon them. I picked up the pace now knowing that the sun was dipping low on the western side and that I needed to reach somewhere before it sank completely. La Meseta was not a place you wanted to stay at night with no gear and no water. The loose shale trail led me up higher to the point where I was threading along the edge of a deep ravine. On my right gushed a huge thirty foot waterfall plunging into the cavern from out of the side of the mountain. I guessed this was where the stream that was my saviour originated from. Also from my point in the ravine I could see to where the trail on the right ended, with a dead end, and an early plunge into the dark cavern that the water had cut out over who knows how many years. The sighting of this dead end on a trail that I was nearly more than tempted to take only emboldened me to continue, with a renewed strength, knowing that the direction I was going on was correct and true and that even though it might be perilous it would not be to my end. This optimism didn’t last very long though as I continued along my way the deep ravine became thinner and thinner pushing me to its edge, pushing me to my greatest fear. The fear of falling, the fear of coming so far and not making it, the fear of not being good enough and dropping off the edge. This fear that tempted me to turn around, the sweat dropped from my finger tips and stung my eyes but I dared not make a wild move to wipe them lest I drop.

To this day I am still not sure how I found the courage to persevere up that ravine but the rush of excitement, strength and confidence that filled my body in that moment was like no other I had felt before, it only closely related to a feeling that I have only felt a few times since then, only more briefly, and that feeling was the feeling of love, deep self-less love carried me up that ravine past all of my fears and worries, past all of my doubts about myself and self-conscious thoughts and it was love that carried me to the zenith of that mountain. At the top I was once again plunged into the warm evening rays of the sun, watching as it began to glow a deep golden orange descending towards it’s horizon, taking the light from our world but giving it to another, somewhere else, that had been without light for so long. I turned and looked back over the plateau from where I had come and saw the faint light flickering in the distance of what I thought might have been the first lights coming on in the pueblo I had seen the night before. I looked down at the winding ravine I had just climbed and thanked the world that it was over. And I again turned and looked at my future, it looked greener and more filled with life than my ascension and in the cradle between mountains I could see smoke rising from a small pueblo that had situated itself surrounded by a dense wood of poplar trees.

In the darkening twilight if the evening I reached the town. The whole place was built with a solid grey stone and it gave off the aura of a place that had been long forgotten by history but not by people. Like most of these small pueblos I knew the main place to find a bed and food for the night would be in the main plaza in the centre of the town which would not be hard to find as all streets led there. As I neared the plaza I could hear music playing and shouts of laughter. A dull orange glow shined from the windows of the taverns and albergues and went black as the dancing shadows passed. I wondered where all these people had come from; I hadn’t seen any of them along the way all day. In a quieter corner of the square sat at a wooden table with a copa de cerveza and well-worn journal sat who else but The Man without Time, scribbling furiously oblivious to the goings on around him. “Is this chair taken?” I asked tapping on a wooden chair opposite to him, He looked up at me with an air of surprise and closed his journal, “Ah” he said “I was wondering when you would arrive here, how was your way?”, “f-f-fine, I guess” I stammered as I fell on to the chair, fatigue of the walk in the hot sun finally gripping me, “But where did all of these people come from?” I asked dumbly as though I had been slapped across the face, “I only saw you on the way today right?”, “what are you talking about?” he replied sitting forward to look at me in a more indept fashion “I saw plenty of people on the way today, which way did you take at the Y in the road?”. I screwed up my face and looked at him “It wasn’t a Y in the road it was a fork” I answered. A sly grin snaked across his face as he tilted his head back, let out a high loud “Ha, Oh reaaaaalllly?” like that of a jester and with that went back to scribbly furiously in his notebook as though everything he had wanted to know from me had been answered.

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2 thoughts on “Between Heaven and Hell

  1. Brilliantly written Christopher i had moments of … “Amazing ” lucky divil! … to! ….Please God I hope he’s exaggerating !… to feeling shit ! ..as a mam!.. scared shitless !.. holy fuck what are you doing! relieved ! Worried! .. Oh Dear Jesus! .. This better get Better!.. I Think you would be very happy on the West Coast of Ireland .. I know i would!

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