I was in a funk: not enough sleep and not enough caffeine. I had left Puenta La Reina that morning just before sunup on my fifth day of walking, a full moon hanging in the sky directly ahead of me as I crossed the bridge out of town. Now it was mid-morning and I was passing through hilly country, with olive orchards, their leaves a dull green, and grape vineyards, their vines just starting to sprout. For half an hour, I’d been watching the beautiful and historic hill-top town of Cirauqui get closer, sure that when I got there I would find my badly needed and much beloved second cup of coffee. Maybe I would also get my second breakfast.


The sky overhead turned overcast and my mood matched it. Finally, when I reached the gates, I wound my way upward into the charming town, under pointed stone archways and through the old city walls, my expectations rising. But then for some inexplicable reason—I would unfortunately encounter this again and again in Spain—the village was more or less closed. Ten a.m.—nothing open; no café, just a tiny tienda, a shop with a few bananas and coffee machine.1 Disappointed not to find a place serving “real” coffee, I continued to climb and arrived at the town square, where I was distracted by the fantastic architecture, especially the 13th-century church, Iglesias de San Romanwith its ornate Mudéjar portal. I lingered, taking photos, momentarily setting down my pack. This town was the Camino at its finest…but, no café. Taking one last look, I re-shouldered my pack and plodded out of town, walking on the actual Roman Calzada, the road with its bridges built by the Romans nearly 2,000 years ago. I stopped to take a photograph of my shoe on the smooth, ancient stone pavement and thought of them with a certain reverence: stones that were laid nearly 2,000 years ago were under my feet. I stowed my camera and looked at my guide book and noted that the next village was more than five kilometers away, at least an hour’s walk. No second breakfast, no cup of coffee—at least not for another hour. Things were not going as I’d planned. I sighed and tightened the straps on my pack, hoisting it a bit higher on my back. Fortunately, it did not look like rain that day.

Twenty minutes later, cresting a hill, I was met by the unexpected: a funky sort of place, right on the path, pretty much in the middle of nowhere, with a “New Age” feel. There was a gate on the path and next to it a bell with a pull-cord and sign that said, “Ring for Good Vibrations.” I pulled the cord and the bell rang. I swung the gate and stepped through, following the road that ran below a low wall, an olive orchard above. My eyes were fixed ahead on a snack stand, something that I would encounter many more times along the Camino. A large sign said La Volutad or “free-will offering.” Incense was burning and soft music was playing. The owner was busily laying out fruit and pastries and homemade souvenirs. But the first thing I saw was the thermos marked “coffee” and I headed straight for it.

Only pausing to pick up a banana, I poured myself a cup of hot coffee—it turned out to be wonderfully strong—and added milk. I climbed a few steps up to the olive grove and, finding a bench to sit on, pulled off my pack and gladly set down my poles. Lifting the cup and enjoying the double aromas of coffee and incense, I took in the scene around me. There were gently swaying scallop shells hanging from the olive trees, tinkling in the breeze; scattered around were potted plants, easy chairs, tables and wooden cabinets containing books, clothing, even walking gear—anything a pilgrim might need—all for free and all completely out in the open. I wasn’t interested in picking anything up myself; the coffee and fruit were more than enough. I sipped the coffee slowly, breathed deeply and laughed at my good fortune, and over my previous frustration and bad mood. It was a wonderful moment and I savored it. A few other pilgrims appeared and stopped at the stand; some also sat down. The longer I stayed, the more my spirit and mind calmed and a sense of wonder returned. After 15 minutes, I got up and stopped once more at the snack table, this time dropping €5 into the donation box and picking out a necklace with an image of a scallop shell burned onto a wooden disk. It would be a gift for Jane. Hoisting my pack and grabbing my poles, I continued along the ancient road, feeling refortified. It wasn’t just the caffeine that lifted my mood, but the utter unpredictability of it all. 

I now understood the oft-used term “Camino Magic” which describe this: the unexpected, the unplanned, the event that transpired just when my plans dissolved. It was the thing I found, but didn’t even know that I needed or that it even existed. It was the person—or persons—that I had not seen in days or weeks, but who suddenly appeared in the entryway as I sat in a café. It was the open door that I came upon when I thought all were shut. It was someone I hadn’t yet met, but who would become a friend. It was turning a bend and coming upon another pilgrim, sitting on a bench, who gave me a sandwich or a bite of chocolate when I was hungry, or who offered conversation when I was lonely. It was the hospitalero who would tell me just the right word of encouragement, or who laughed and insisted on carrying my pack to my bunk when I didn’t think I could walk another step. It became the essence of the Camino. Before I set out on this journey I knew intuitively that this was the kind of thing I would be looking for, but didn’t know what to call it. And now I had named it.

As a busy modern American, my life has been tightly scheduled, controlled and well-planned. I don’t like having things go the way that I don’t want them to. I don’t like traffic jams, or red lights, or inconvenient signs on stores and restaurants that say “closed.” I don’t like picking the slow line at the check-out register. If I leave the house, I have a “to-do,” or shopping list, errands carefully plotted. I check my watch often, leaving nothing to chance. I have weather apps, traffic apps, shopping apps, and map apps. I want to know where I am, where I’m going, how long it will take me to get there and anything I might encounter along the way. This is modern efficiency and control at its peak; it is very stressful and I don’t like it.

Sitting on that bench and sipping my coffee, I began to learn to let go. I began to see that I could live fully in each moment, could surrender my tight plans, my stressful efficiency. It would take me some weeks, but gradually I learned to look for, to anticipate the “magic” that would unfold, if only I would open myself and be ready for it.

This is adapted from chapter 6 of my book, The Walk of a Lifetime, which can be purchased here.

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