Better Down the Road without that Load

Michael and Maxime in Villar de MazarifeMusic has been a constant fellow-traveller in my life. Last week, I wrote about the music in my head on the Camino de Santiago de Compostela, which my wife and I walked ten years ago. I did manage to make some music on the outside, too, where other people could hear it. I didn’t bring a guitar with me – I had to carry everything I had for 800 kilometres, so toting a musical instrument would have been foolhardy (but more on that later) – but some of the places we stayed in had a guitar propped against the wall. To pull it down and play was a welcome act.

The most memorable of those nights – indeed, one of our most memorable on the whole journey – was in Villar de Mazarife. We had heard about this albergue by reputation: the Albergue de Jesus sometimes offers the queimada, which is an apparently impressive flaming alcoholic communal drink experience (not this). The account we read made the place out to be a hippy party spot, and I could see how it might become such a place in the right conditions. This guy, describing the queimada at another spot on the route, is of the opinion that those conditions involve several attractive peregrinas. Perhaps he’s on to something: when we hit Villar de Mazarife, it was off-season and getting chilly, and there was nobody in sight as our hospitalero showed us to our bunk room. The room slept eight on military-style metal bunk beds with bare, unadorned mattresses, but we had it to ourselves. The albergue had dorms on four sides facing into a quad, but all was lifeless.

Not all: we went to the kitchen to prepare our dinner, and a scruffy, curly-headed, bearded Canadian guy (hey, wait a minute!) was just taking his off the hob. His name was Maxime – a francophone from St. Isidore. He ate his meal whilst we cooked, and we made small, brief conversation. He seemed very internally focused and perhaps uncertain about speaking in English. The kitchen was the only warm room in the place, though, so he hung out, plucking the guitar from the corner and strumming softly as we finished our meal. Katie did our washing up, and I gestured for Max to pass the guitar.

So it went: trading the guitar back and forth all night. We played a lot of Grateful Dead – a favourite of Max, though I could only hobble my way through “Ripple”. But the lines “There is no road, no simple highway” seemed apt. I surprised him with my rendition of Neil Young’s “Thrasher”: it was his favourite Neil song, and one of the ones that had been swirling through my psychic jukebox for the last couple of weeks. I encountered the song through a cover from Stephen Fearing, however, and he kind of lifts Neil’s tune to incredible heights. That’s the way I played it, and it defamiliarised the song for Max, but he loved it.

It was then that I knew I’d had enough
Burned my credit card for fuel
Headed out to where the pavement turns to sand
With my one-way ticket to the land of truth
And my suitcase in my hand
How I lost my friends, I still don’t understand

The picture above, of us red-cheeked with empty San Miguel bottles and the collective collage artwork scrawled on the walls – only glimpsed at in the picture, but it covered four walls and the ceiling – it a treasure for me. It transports me to that kitchen, to that pilgrimage, to that space both private and corporate created by music. Max matched pace with us evening by evening for the rest of the journey. He had a profound pilgrimage, and like Neil’s character in the song, he wasn’t stopping there when we reached Compostela. I think about him, worry about him, hope for him. We journeyed before the heights of Facebook, so the people that we walked with – our companions – were community only for the moments that our feet fell on the path together.

Something that transports me now to the pilgrimage is Oliver Schroer’s CD Camino. I didn’t carry a musical instrument with me, but Schroer (declared by CBC’s Stuart McLean as “the world’s tallest free-standing violinist”) carried his five-string violin with him not just through northern Spain but a healthy part of France as well. He also carried a small recording studio, and he would set up in churches along the way, recording songs he had composed whilst walking as well as a few that he had already written but which breathed with the rhythms of the Camino.

Idiotic as that labour might seem, he convinced a friend to lug his big arty professional camera, too. And we are all richer because they did: the album is just gorgeous – visually, in its images and its layout, and sonically for the music he plays. Schroer made those churches sing along to his melodies. They are timeless and free. I played it once for a musician friend on a road trip – taking a bit of a chance, as he’d descended into hardcore bluegrass. After the first song on the CD, the 8:15 “Field of Stars”, I waited for his reaction. (Schroer follows the song with sound of his feet falling on a stone path and occasional cowbells from a farm he passed.) Silence for too long a moment, followed by, “That is exactly the music I’ve been looking for.”

It’s holy, and it’s life-changing. Schroer died several years ago from leukemia. He was surrounded with the love of fellow musicians: many of the Toronto scenesters gathered for a concert for him, and he was able to perform a month before he died – fully aware of the finality of the event. My copy of Camino is a true gift: when I saw the publicity material for it, he mentioned being kicked out of the cathedral in Astorga after playing for only about 30 seconds. I sent him an e-mail: I’d been told off by the docent at the cathedral, too, because I had lain on by back on one of the pews to fathom the loftiness of the sanctuary. “No kidding – maybe it was the same guy!” he wrote me. “What’s your address?” His CD arrived a few days later.

I would urge any pilgrim to buy it. When time permits, I put it on at night in a dim room after the kids have gone to sleep, and I can spend the hour just sitting and listening. It also works well in the car, especially in late afternoon on a long trip. Here’s a bit of what it sounds like.

One thought on “Better Down the Road without that Load

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