In The Snow Leopard author Peter Matthiessen describes searching for a rare white cat in the mountains of Tibet. Matthiessen never sights the animal, but at journey's end he realizes that throughout his quest he has been guided by an enlightened man: the "disreputable catlike" Sherpa guide Tukten.
I stood brushing my teeth before the bathroom mirror at the Albergue San Luis de Francia this morning and thought of Tukten, because I have begun thinking of my newfound English friend Simon in the same way. If my journey to Santiago de Compostela is ever going to add up to anything, its meaning just may have something to do with Simon.
Ricardo, the oncologist from Brazil, and Christian, the healthcare administrator from Switzerland, would seem better candidates for "the guy who taught me something." I have written about both. One is a reverent Catholic, the other a striking human presence, who has not declared his own position on God. On the surface, Simon is a cut-up, a good-time Charlie, the kind of bloke you might bump into at a Yorkshire pub, spinning yarns after a few pints.
You never know when he's pulling your leg. The other day he told me a long-winded bit about running over a rabbit on an English roadway and being pulled over by a member of the RSPCA (Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals). The man asked Simon if he was sure the rabbit was dead. Simon didn't know. The man forced Simon to walk back to the battered beast with him. Then the man picked it up, carried it to his car, opened the boot (trunk), and sprayed something on the animal. It came to life and sprinted away! Simon was dumbfounded and asked the man what he had sprayed on it. The man said, hare restorer. When Simon said this, I thought he was referring to some kind of hair-growing spray. He waited and waited until the tumblers in my brain clicked, and then leered grinning at me. Gotcha!
Simon has shaved back most of his own hair to the nub, that which hasn't fallen out with age (51), and his whole head glows with a healthy tan. His eyes jest merrily, his triangle nose juts, and his slight overbite goes perfectly with a heavy Yorkshire accent. I am constantly asking for translations, as he spins out one bit of Yorkshire slang after another. "He tossed his teddies out of the cot" means "he threw a tantrum." "Budgie smugglers" are men's briefs. Last night I tried to combine the two expressions comically, speaking of someone who had "tossed his budgies out of the cot." Simon laughed until I thought he would pee himself, then explained that "tossing" also means "masturbating."
At any rate, he is no Catholic, my Yorkshire friend, and he likes nothing better than to tweak me for my faith. This morning as we trekked away from Viloria de la Rioja, he told me that if he ever gets to heaven, he's going to seek out St. Peter and ask, "Is there a Webster Bull here?" If St. Peter says yes, Simon will denounce me as a fraud. It's one of his favorite words and punch-lines: Fraud! And who knows that he won't be right?
He speaks at length about the fraudulence of the helping professions, and he speaks from experience. To travel with Sam, he quit his job as a counselor to troubled teens living in what once might have been called a reform school. He suggests that there is little hope for the young people he worked with, as they are quickly contaminated by a system designed to help them. And his own fellow workers don't win many points from Simon. Every six months or so, he would have to go off for group workshops in team building and other relevant skills, finding them next to worthless.
Tough love seems to have been his strategy for dealing with kids, that and brutal honesty. "Sympathy," he says delphically, "is just a word in the dictionary between shit and syphillis. Build a bridge and get over it!"
Yet if Simon is skeptical, even often cynical about mankind and its future, he will also surprise you with his positive regard. I think of him as two parts Nicholas Nickleby and one part Wackford Squeers, the horrible head of a Yorkshire school where Dickens's callow hero goes to teach. Call him Nicholas Nicklewack, if you like.
Simon spoke feelingly this morning of one success story in the job he has left behind. A youngster had defaced school property with graffiti, and Simon called all twelve teens in his charge together. He said that if the person who did the deed came to him to confess by 9 p.m., there would be no repercussions. Simon was sure he knew who it was. When that boy came forward at 8:45, Simon kept his word, knowing that if this boy could only admit one bit of wrongdoing, it would be a "revolution." And it was. The boy straightened himself right out of the system, and several years later he approached Simon at a cinema to say that he was working his way through college.
Simon even found something positive in one of those team-building weekends. He spoke of one where he was the only male, together with two dozen females. A woman went to the center and the rest formed a circle. Then someone on the perimeter was given a ball of yarn and asked to give one hypothetical reason why an abused woman would refuse to leave her husband. When the first reason was given—"Her mother lives nextdoor," for example—the yarn ball was passed to another on the perimeter. Eventually the victim (the woman in the center) would be trapped in a web of her own reasons.
Simon got the end of the yarn and so had to provide the last reason. "I wracked my brain," he told me, "and I came up with, 'He tells me my ass is fat, so it must be fat.'"
Marian and I talked about this anecdote as, on the last leg of today's journey, we followed well behind Simon, Sam, and Alann into Villafranca Montes de Oca. She and I both identify with the woman in the circle, wishing to make changes in our lives but often trapped by our own, mostly fictional reasons.
Whether he is a teacher or not, like Tukten in The Snow Leopard, Simon is at least our guide, for now. He declared last night that he had the Camino "sussed" (figured out), by which he meant that he knew the right way to structure each day's itinerary. Almost every English speaker here uses Pilgrim's Guide to the Camino de Sanitago by John Brierly. The guidebook divides the 800 kilometers from St. Jean Pied de Port into 33 stages, and each stage is mapped vertically on a full page running from bottom (starting point) to top (day's suggested destination). Simon's strategy has worked well for us the past two days: always aim for the smaller town just short of the top of the page. This way you won't be racing the mob for beds at the prescribed end-point; and so far this has left us in beautiful locations a bit off the beaten track.
Tonight we are staying in an albergue just behind the Church of San Anton Abad, an Egyptian hermit and the patron saint of domestic animals. The town of Villafranca Montes de Oca is a little Spanish paradise with diesels roaring through, said to be favored by both pilgrims and truckers. Simon could be either, or both for all I know.
Tomorrow I will follow him out of the hills and onto the plains.
[NOTE: This series of posts on my Camino continues here.]