The Road for Conquering

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Abstinence, mesetas, penance, ignorant trains, mental infidelity, rabid wolves, Spain, pilgrimages, vino tinto, Grizzly Man & the authors of our own misfortune.

Iwas only twenty-two days sober when I set out walking the meseta—that long, hot plateau on the Camino de Santiago. Walking on red dirt, grey and purple stones, walking stick clicking. My last drink had been a lychee martini at the famous Veeraswamy Indian Restaurant in London, and although it was delicious, I had promised myself never to drink again. But by 10 a.m. that first morning, the sun was already scorching and I was thirsty as hell.

My friends and I were walking the Camino Roman, the old Roman route that the locals called the Road for Conquering. The Romans built their roads on high plateaus so they could see for miles and were safe from surprise attack. I imagined them marching in their metal armour in this crazy heat, leaving a bloody trail of conquest and destruction in their wake. My trusty guidebook had warned the road was “thirty kilometers without shade.” Many pilgrims didn’t bother to walk this grueling middle section of the pilgrimage. They streaked across the sweltering flatland in air-conditioned autobuses instead. But we were hardcore pilgrims. True peregrinos.

When I first suggested the longer, more dangerous but scenic route, Jason had laughed.

“Oh hell, why not. If they find our baked bones years from now, we’ll make a great Camino story.”

The Buddha had said that desire was the root of all unhappiness, and that night, I believed it.

My Camino tribe consisted of Jason, a punk musician from New York, and Adam, a Buddhist monk from Australia, recently disrobed. I was the only one who knew Adam’s secret. But then, I was good at keeping secrets; I was carrying a few of my own.

Adam and I had been walking together for two weeks, starting our mornings in silence, doing our individual Buddhist practices. I began with the Serenity Prayer, then prayed for the willingness not to pick up a drink. I was abstinent “one day at a time,” as they said, although it often felt like one hour at a time, definitely “one step at a time,” which was literal in my case.

But lately serenity eluded me. My eyes were drawn to the backs of Adam’s calves and I kept thinking about the blond hairs on his arms. A crazy longing had hijacked my heart. I thought I should be getting more peaceful after all this walking and meditating, more virtuous, but I was not. Was it the heat? Detox?

Adam and I had run into Jason that morning at the Monasterio de las Madres Benedictinas in town. His face had peered out from behind a barred convent window.

“Hey compañeros! Help! I’m locked in here with the nuns,” he’d joked. “They’re going to make me join the order, wear a habit. I haven’t had a drink in 24 hours!”

I winced. Twenty-four hours? That was nada. While all the other pilgrims were partying and sloshing back copious amounts of vino tinto, I was using the WhiteSands Orlando drug rehab programs, a moving retreat. I envied Jason and Adam their boozy nights out on the town. What I wouldn’t give to have fun and flirt across Spain, but I knew if I took one sip of red wine I would never make it to Santiago.

He’d gone home two weeks ago, a small eternity on the Camino. I was too tired to remember my former life.

Still, I was cheerful as we set off late from Sahagún, our skin smelling of coconut suntan lotion, our steps in synch. After an hour we saw a sign that said we were halfway to Santiago. We bumped plastic bottles of agua natural and cheered.

We walked eighteen miles that day. At dusk we stumbled into a sun-bleached village, Calzadilla de los Hermanillos, and checked into the new brick hostel for the night. Jason went off with some musicians while Adam decided to cook dinner in the communal galley kitchen: rice and chorizo sausage. He invited me to join him. I perched on a chair while he shared stories of his misspent youth.

“I was wild as a young man,” he confessed. “I partied too hard. Nearly died of alcohol poisoning one night, so I can relate to your wanting to quit drinking. Buddhism saved me from all that.”

He sipped his cerveza. He was wearing plaid shorts and flip-flops, his first civilian clothes. His legs were tanned down to his missing socks. He seemed comfortable in his own skin, tranquil. Maybe that’s what I found attractive about him.

“This is the first alcohol I’ve had in ten years.”

I confessed I’d been a delinquent too. I told him how as a teenager I had skimmed a little off every bottle in my parents’ liquor cabinet, mixing vodka, whiskey and rum in a single glass, then chasing down my “fearless cocktail” with orange juice.

“I had to plug my nose to keep from throwing up as I drank it down,” I said. “My poor parents put a lock on the liquor cabinet, but I found a screwdriver and took the door off its hinges! They never did figure that one out.”

We laughed at our folly. The mad arrogance of youth. Our talent for self-destruction.

“It’s so easy to talk to you,” he said, out of the blue.

Oh dear, I thought.

While all the other pilgrims were partying and sloshing back copious amounts of vino tinto, I was using the Camino as an ambulatory rehab, a moving retreat.

It was a full Hay Moon that hot July night and I couldn’t sleep. Our bunk beds were in a dark wood-paneled cubicle that felt like a plywood womb. A womb without a roof. Every sound echoed. I listened to an older pilgrim farting in the next cubicle. Jason snored below me. Adam slept fitfully across. If I reached out my hand, I could touch his arm. I lay flat on my back and felt every pore throbbing, every nerve on fire, every fibre of my being urging me to wake him up and whisper, “Let’s trip out onto The Way in the moonlight! Let’s go wild and make love outdoors!”

I tried the Serenity Prayer, then Witness Meditation, repeating silently: fantasizing, lusting, longing, imagining. But nothing helped.

In the back of my mind was a warning I’d heard in the twelve-step recovery rooms: When you stop self-medicating with alcohol, your emotions go haywire, so don’t make any major life decisions. And, whatever you do, don’t get involved in a relationship that first year or you’ll never stay sober.

I tried the advice a Buddhist teacher had once given me: imagine the beloved as a rotting skeleton… But that just seemed gory and ridiculous. The Buddha had said that desire was the root of all unhappiness, and that night, I believed it.

I had never seriously desired anyone else after meeting my husband, so I was shocked at myself, shocked at this sudden mental infidelity. Why was this happening? I conjured an image of Nelson kneeling before me on the Puente la Reina, tenderly replacing the broken shoelace in my muddy hiking boot. I’d kissed the top of his head, drinking in his windy sweat smell, my heart aching with gratitude and love for him. But he’d gone home two weeks ago, a small eternity on the Camino. I was too tired to remember my former life.

I inhaled, exhaled, inhaled, exhaled.

I reminded myself that the Buddha was also tempted by lust. While he meditated under the Bodhi tree, demon dancing girls, the daughters of Mara, had whirled seductively around him, bangles clinking, bare midriffs winking at him. But the Buddha went on meditating and achieved enlightenment under that sacred fig tree. All things can be endured, I told myself. Maybe this crush was just a test. But why now?

I skipped back in time. To adolescence, then childhood… In my mind, the bedroom door opened and my nightly intruder appeared. I felt a chill, began choking. My eyes blurred and a tear rolled into my ear, deafening me. In an instant, I was drowning in memories and the roaring ocean of my own grief. Of course lust would show up now; someone else’s lust had always haunted me.

You will feel a lot of feelings, my sponsor had warned. And they won’t all be pretty.

Compass Rose

The next morning was cool and full of promise: marshmallow clouds, powder-blue sky, long, silvery shadows. We followed las flechas, yellow arrows, out of the sleepy town. Adam and I began our familiar ritual, walking in silence separated by a few lengths while Jason trundled behind. Exhausted by lack of sleep, I struggled through my morning practice. I said my prayers, then began my Buddhist mantra. I visualized Vajrasattva’s white light entering my crown chakra, purifying my thoughts, my speech, my mind. I prayed to be able to leave it all behind—the craving, the self-loathing, the night terrors, the ghostly hands that still groped, the threats circling inside my skull: don’t tell or else.

By 1 p.m. it was blisteringly hot. The road continued on. We walked into the sun, no end in sight. We saw nothing but desolate green cornfields for miles—then some lonely grey poles along a deserted railway line. No sound besides the irritated scratching of cicadas.

The sweat poured down my temples, sluicing into my eyes. My bangs were soaked under my Corona hat. Why had I bought a hat named after a beer when I could never drink again? I was tormented by longing—the first bubbly sip of a draught beer, the tangy wakeup of a lime margarita with a salty rim. How brave and confident I felt after that first drink—invincible. Alcohol: my invisible armour against the cruel encroachments of this world. There was nothing like it.

We walked on, desperate for shade, until finally we saw a bedraggled tree near an abandoned railway platform. We quit the stony Roman path and crossed the tracks. Scrambling under the tree’s straggly branches, we set up camp in the merciful shade, laying out mats and sleeping bags. I had never felt so happy to sit down. We pulled out rice cakes, chorizo and cheese. Jason had only a can of chickpeas, all he could afford. He held up the unopened can, performing a mock commercial to make us laugh.

Lentejas…son muy delicioso! I’ve lost ten pounds on the lentil diet, and you can too! All you have to do is walk twenty-five miles a day in the hot sun and stick to a steady diet of lentils and water!”

We rolled in the grass, laughing, took off our dusty hiking boots. As I plucked off my Rockports, my feet expanded like sponges soaking up air and space. My socks were drenched. I tore them off. My blistered and bandaged feet felt raw and exposed. I wore my boots for so long that they often felt like the true end of my legs.

Our bunk beds were in a dark wood-paneled cubicle that felt like a plywood womb.

While we ate, Jason and Adam told stories about their adventures in the Spanish bars. All the great wine and women. “Guess what I’ve got?” Jason said, producing a water bottle filled with vino tinto. Or did I imagine that? I was close to delirious.

“Hey K., want some wine?”

I confess I had the dangerous thought: maybe I could have one sip. Who would know? I could have fun now and quit drinking when I got back home… But I remembered the Mara, the torment of the night before.

“No thanks,” I said, swallowing hard. Stricken with self-pity. Jealousy. I turned away from them and lay down so that I didn’t have to watch them drink. Drifting exhausted on my sleeping-bag island. The breeze blew down my shirt between my breasts. I bent my knees and fanned my legs to dry the sweat. Booze and men. Before I’d met Nelson, both had caused me no end of heartache. Their voices floated back to me, disembodied. When I looked up, I saw bark, leaves, triangles of blue infinity.

“Hey, do you guys know the story of Grizzly Man?” Jason said. “You know? Timothy something? He thought he could talk to grizzlies and went into the wild to live with them in Alaska. He even touched one.”

I hadn’t heard of him, but Adam had. “His story was made into a film by Werner Herzog, wasn’t it?”

“What was with that guy?” Jason said. “Was he crazy? I don’t know why, but I can’t stop thinking of him.”

“A lot of people say he was unbalanced,” Adam said. “Wasn’t he an alcoholic? He had to have mental-health issues to want to live such a remote life away from everyone.”

“But then some people choose a religious life a lot like that,” I said.

“I guess so,” Adam said, after a pause.

I was tormented by longing—the first bubbly sip of a draught beer, the tangy wakeup of a lime margarita with a salty rim. How brave and confident I felt after that first drink—invincible.

“But among grizzly bears?” Jason continued. “The guy would go right up to them and talk to them in this honey tone of voice and they tolerated him. It was the strangest thing I’ve ever seen.”

“It was extraordinary,” Adam said.

“Do you think the bears knew he was crazy? One park ranger said they were just confused by him.”

“Maybe they weren’t frightened of him because they knew he meant them no harm,” I suggested. “What happened to him in the end?”

“This angry old bear killed him, tore both he and his girlfriend to pieces,” Jason said. “The guy must have been nuts!”

“I guess the line between madness and brilliance is very fine,” Adam said.

I thought about all those fine lines: between friendship and flirting, between desire and obsession, between problem drinker and alcoholic.

I looked up, but the wine was gone. Thank God.

“The thing that gets me is that he knew he shouldn’t stay past summer. Bears get more aggressive before hibernation, but he did stay and then he was killed,” Jason said. “The guy was so self-destructive. Sometimes it’s like we’re the author of our own misfortune, you know?”

I got a rash of goosebumps. I’d learned on this trek that if you walked with someone long enough, eventually they told you the truth about themselves, and their truth usually reflected some element of your own. It was uncanny.

“Self-sabotage,” I said. “Don’t we all do that?”

Jason slapped his arms and legs.

“Shit, there are ants. Are you guys getting bitten?”

I gently brushed an ant off my knee. They had found me too.

“You could hear him screaming on the tape. Afterwards, all they found was his arm with his wristwatch still on, still ticking.”

“Consider this Camino, for instance,” Jason said. “We’re miles from anywhere, it’s freaking hot as hell and I don’t know about you, but I’m running out of water. You wouldn’t catch me dead doing something like this in New York. I’d be like, ‘Where’s the nearest restaurant, the nearest bar? Where’s the club, the party, man?’ If there was no nightlife, no way I’d stick around.”

We laughed.

The ground began to tremble. We flipped over onto our bellies to peer through the tall grass and saw a train roaring in. We leapt up, rushed out, waving our arms, shouting, “Stop! Stop!”

But the train rumbled past without a pause.

“Why did I think it would stop in the middle of fucking nowhere?” Jason said. “Nothing good ever happens to me.”

We crawled back under the tree. I told them about an old boyfriend I had had—a writer, in debt and with debilitating back pain, who had jumped into a gorge. But I didn’t share all the self-destructive things I had done: driving drunk, hitchhiking alone at 4 a.m., going home with strangers, blowing off an important job interview because I was too hungover. Or that I, too, had tried to kill myself, at fifteen. I’d swallowed a bottle of 222s, gulping them down with Chardonnay while writing my suicide note on the back of an old envelope. I still sometimes fantasized about some painless way to escape the torment in my head. Before I decided to walk The Way and put down the bottle, I had spent a night slamming back vodka shots, courting oblivion, only to end out in the garden at 3 a.m. railing at God. Nelson had appeared in his housecoat and begged me to shut up and go to bed.

“I had a friend who committed suicide in Japan,” Adam said. “Suicide is seen so differently from culture to culture.”

That’s what I liked about him. He was so fair. But he was my friend, not my husband, not my lover. And a friend is what I needed most.

“I guess it was a kind of suicide,” Jason said. “Grizzly Man was asking for it. It was pure self-destruction. You could hear him screaming on the tape. Afterwards, all they found was his arm with his wristwatch still on, still ticking.”

The shade moved. We chased it, then gave up. Finally, we gathered up our things and resumed our long, hot slog.

Compass Rose

W      e trudged for two hours along a wide, empty senda without so much as a postage stamp of shade, the wind hot and steady and against us. We ran out of water. Shared a peach. I divvied up the last of my Chiclets. Bummed an orange from two Basque pilgrims on a bench.

“How long do you think it takes to die of dehydration?” Jason asked, joking but just.

Eventually, we spied the glinting church spire of Reliegos and the old town on the horizon. Found the old converted schoolhouse that was the albergue. As we got our credentials stamped, a no-nonsense hospitalera with an auburn ponytail asked us where we had walked from that morning.

When we confessed we had taken the old Roman road, she frowned and shook her head.

“Pilgrims have been attacked by wolves out on that old road,” she said. “The wolves have rabies. Just last week someone went to hospital. It is very dangerous. You should not have taken this route.”

“Wow, did we tell you we also ran out of water?” Jason laughed.

The hospitalera clucked her tongue. “Ooh la la! That is worse! Without water, you could have died.”

“We have good karma,” Adam said.

I’d learned on this trek that if you walked with someone long enough, eventually they told you the truth about themselves, and their truth usually reflected some element of your own. It was uncanny.

I smiled. Proud of myself. Proud of my friends. For we had walked and walked until I was ready to collapse and then we walked some more. I had walked until my feet were wooden and my legs were as stiff as Frankenstein’s. The whole time breathing in white light and exhaling the dark smoke of all my pain, all my loss, all my cravings for more. Leaving my tears like bloodstains on the old Roman road. Walking until I was too tired to hate myself, to want a drink, to lust after an inappropriate man or think much of anything at all. I had walked until I couldn’t feel my aching body or hear my crazy thoughts. Clocking miles by clicking the beads on my mala, praying, breathing and surrendering to the road, exhaling the chatter, the worry, the longing and the questions that looped endlessly in my head: would I stay sober? Or drink myself to death? Would I die out on this road? Or recover from my past? Stay faithful to my husband? Or end out unloved and alone?

And after an hour, the chatter had calmed to a murmur and the sky grew enormous, no longer an oppressive forever, but an endless gift of time and space. A blue benevolence. The breeze had caressed my cheek and, for a moment, I had known peace.

Kelly Watt’s short fiction has been published internationally, won awards and been long-listed twice for the CBC Short Fiction Contest (2018/2015). She was also long-listed for the CBC Nonfiction Prize (2019), and her memoir, The Road for Conquering, won an Honourable Mention at grit LIT 2019, Hamilton, Ontario’s Readers and Writers Festival. She has published two books: the Gothic novel Mad Dog (2001), a Globe and Mail notable book originally published by Doubleday Canada (2001) and now available in the U.S. with Hamilton Stone Editions (2019), and the mini travel companion Camino Meditations (2014). She ended out in a Buddhist monastery in Nepal at eighteen years of age and spent many years studying Buddhist meditation. She is an unapologetic pilgrimage junkie. In 2008, she walked the Camino de Santiago, and in 2012 completed the second-largest pilgrimage in Mexico, San Juan de Los Lagos. Learn more at In April 2019, this piece won an Honorable Mention for the gritLIT memoir contest.

Lead image: Ricardo Frantz

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