Spain haunts me. Even when I was on the Camino, even in the first days of it, I dreaded leaving.
I met someone who hadn’t.
It’s early on, in Estella, barely a week in. I turn onto a cobblestone street with looming walls. A tall man with bleached hair and tan skin is playing a wooden flute for my friends, who are smoking and ignoring him. He’s not bad.
“What’s your name?” I ask, joining them.
He turns: his eyes are light blue and the light in them is funny.
“Free. What day did you start?”
“15 years ago.”
My friends tell me that he’s taking a bus to the next town, but the next morning when I wake to walk west before the sun’s even threatening the east, Frei is there. I wave to him, and he screeches like a prehistoric bird. I don’t think much of it and don’t expect to see him again.
But Frei is in Rioja where the vineyards glow. He’s on the lonely Meseta where the sunflowers stand dead and the sky is a cold blue dome. He’s in the plazas pissing off pilgrims, wiggling the skin of his throat, screeching as they dine, too obnoxious to ignore. He asks for beer. The hospitaleros turn him away and the baristas roll their eyes.
He is an annoying institution, but he’s not scary. Whenever I see him, I shake his hand or bump his fist. Sometimes, his blue eyes flash and we smile. One night, I play an old piano and everyone in the albergue drinks too much and he sings along and I think he sounds great.
He’s in Leon in the empty chair at a dinner table, bumming a smoke from my crew.
“Why are you walking?” I ask. Frei leans back and says:
“I lost my wife and I lost my children.”
“I’m sorry. How?”
He gazes at me for a long moment. His head rotates on the axis of his gaze, which deepens in intimacy until he grabs his throat.
“Aw, come on Frei—”
That’s just how he is, they say. He’s walked the path of transformation so long, he’s gone static. Pilgrims pass him on their way to Santiago, hellbent on renewal. They need peace, clarity, closure, health. Frei just drinks and paces, 500 miles each way.
Weeks pass. I reach Santiago, heart aching with triumph and dismay that I must leave soon. I want to do it all again. Pain, loneliness, danger: give it all to me again.
It’s golden hour in the great plaza before the cathedral. If there were someone to throw a tantrum to, I would. I don’t want to leave.
Then I see Frei leaning against that impossible backpack of his, and I’m surprised because I haven’t seen him for almost two weeks, but I shouldn’t be. How many times has he come to this end? Does it mean anything to him?
He’s not drinking or making noise. He’s just looking at the cathedral, all covered in tarps and scaffolding: a work in progress.