the dishes, dismissing the topic for further discussion.
We cleaned and dried the plates in silence for a couple minutes, passing the pieces down the line along the three of us. Outside, a warm wind sent the summer air flowing into the kitchen, the hanging laundry off the lines along with it. He gathered all the leftover food and prepared to head outside where he slept in a tent. He didn’t like to stay inside with the crowd.
I stopped him on his way out. “Thank you,” I said, “I feel so lucky we had this night together. I won’t forget this.” He brushed off my serious tone and tearful eyes with a laugh, handing me the last of the orujo at the bottom of the bottle to be finished off. “Na zdrowie,” he said with a wink, and I drank the last bit of the bottle.
We hugged the Man from Poland, yelled a hearty “Buen Camino!” and let him walk away.
After we said our final goodbyes, Christina and I stumbled out into the evening, the sun only beginning its descent at 9:30pm. I double-checked that the rosary sat safely in my pocket. My aching fingers—always sore from gripping my walking stick—clung to the beads with desperation for some sort of understanding. Here is a gift from a man that fears, in his final days, the disappearance of the very traditions on which he built his life. And here we were, two confused millennials from the US, representing the exact changes he so resents. And yet despite his fears, he shared a table with us. He shared nearly every piece of food in his backpack. He shared his wisdom of 12 pilgrimages, the stories of a nearly forgotten tradition, the pain of watching what you love disappear without your control. Will he, just like Don Elías, never get to see what becomes of his road?
We stood in silence, in reverence for the time we spent with a rare, fleeting mentor. Suddenly, the bells of the famous Astorga cathedral rang with celebration and the doors flung open, flooding the plaza with a sea of wedding guests. Exquisitely clothed wedding attendees greeted the newlyweds with handfuls of white and red rose petals, sending the flowers shooting into the sky. We looked on in disbelief in our hand-washed hiking pants and flip flops. The world made a stunning show of its beauty.
We never saw our friend again, and though I tried to locate him when I returned, I doubt we will ever know the end of his story. But perhaps it’s not for us to know. The Camino, an ever-changing force of human connection and mystery, stepped in to unite our table for one evening only over a bottle of orujo. Christina and I gifted his items to two gracious recipients when we returned home, and I occasionally carry his rosary—alongside my mala beads—on days when I need strength