The Umbrella

My recent walk of the Camino de Santiago — the ancient 500-mile pilgrimage/trek across Spain — was not always as bucolic as I might have implied in my recent series on the subject.

One day, I took an off-Camino route (deliberately that time). It was a long, challenging, hilly route through obscure countryside that seldom saw a pilgrim. Every few miles was a half-abandoned town of a few pathetic buildings losing a centuries-old battle with nature.

It rained hard all day. Little droplets came down in sheets in the gusty wind. After a couple of hours, I was really wet and starting to shiver. My boots filled with water, which squished out with every step.

Every so often a car would roll past me on the potholed, one-lane road. Sometimes the driver would stop and ask who I was and where I was going since I was clearly not on the Camino and perhaps not of this planet.

In some of the dilapidated towns were the remains of bus stops, though quite obviously no bus had come through for decades. They were just rusted-out, weed-infested lean-tos of corrugated steel. I would stop at each so that I could consult my GPS out of the rain, mostly.

Then I got a break. At one of the bus-stop ruins, my guardian angels, who always got me into and out of so much trouble, had left me an umbrella. I couldn’t believe my luck. It was a pretty nice one, too. I decided this rainy clime was like Seattle, where everyone accidentally swaps umbrellas on the bus (never mind that the bus stops were obviously in disuse).

So I helped myself to the umbrella. I promised those angels that I would avoid overdrawing my karma bank by dropping it off somewhere down the way.

The umbrella helped, but I was already soaking wet, and besides, the umbrella did nothing to shield me from the portion of the rain that came down sideways. At one point I tried to calculate my elapsed mileage based on my elapsed time. When I was unable to perform the simple arithmetic in my head, I realized I was in the early stages of hypothermia. I considered knocking on a door of one of the rare inhabited houses and asking for a cup of coffee.

I also realized, however, that I looked irresistibly pathetic. I presented a shivering, drenched pilgrim with a backpack and umbrella bracing himself against the buffeting, wet wind as he shuffled along with water squishing out of his boots. Wearing shorts.

Surely one of the infrequent cars would stop and I’d be offered a ride. I decided I would allow myself to be talked into accepting one.

Sure enough, one stopped and I was offered a ride. I pretended to resist. We went back and forth in his Spanish and my Spanglish. I pointed to the umbrella and tried to assert that it helped a lot. He kept saying “no.” He didn’t seem to think the umbrella would help much. His wife was in the passenger seat, and his 6-year-old daughter was in back. He kept looking over to the wife, and they would talk fast between themselves. The little girl just stared at me through the back window.

I finally decided that my pretended objections to accepting the ride had gone far enough to preserve my dignity, so I reached for the back door to let myself in. Just then, the driver finished an exchange with the wife. He looked right at me, pointed to the umbrella, and said slowly and distinctly and loudly:

“That ours.”

Mortified, I realized that he had no intention of letting me into his car. He was there simply because someone had stolen the family umbrella and he wanted it back. I stammered two of my most used Spanglish phrases, “gracias” and “lo siente.” He was unimpressed with my thanks and apologies. He just wanted his umbrella.

I shook the water off it, folded it up, handed it to him and again mumbled “gracias.” He snatched it, rolled the window up, hit the gas and spun into a 180 and roared back toward town. The little girl in the back seat was scowling through the window as if to say, “Filthy wet umbrella-stealin’ pilgrim.”

And I stood in the middle of the road alone in the wind-whipped rain.

Published in The Aspen Times on Nov. 10, 2013 at http://www.aspentimes.com/opinion/8801369-113/umbrella-bus-stop-wet

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