Post Hike #2: How I Became The Incident
All I can say is “You asked for it.” Read on at your own risk.
How I Became “The Incident”
After more than 3,000 miles of backpacking on two continents, something trail-name-worthy finally happened to me, and I became “The Incident.” Those who witnessed the incident took a sacred vow of silence. Until today, no tales of it have ever been told. This telling will be the sole account, written for the sake of posteriority, and to reward Survivor for his persistent, devious, but ultimately feeble attempts to trick me and Northstar into spilling the beans.
An Unholy Pilgrimage
The incident dropped in northern Spain, between Triacastela and Sarria, about 400 miles into the Camino de Santiago Frances Route. The trail crew at the time of the incident included me, previously unnamed by any trail, Mrs. The Incident, then known as “Princess Beastmode” and now as “Northstar,” and The Incident, Jr., also known as “Poppy-whacker.”
We left Triacastela without breakfast because Mrs. The Incident took the wrong pill when she got up and needed to wait an hour before eating breakfast after taking the right one. Now, I am not saying that I necessarily blame her for the incident, but she is inexcusably at fault for messing up Plan A, which was to eat a delicious and leisurely breakfast at one of the many local eateries before hiking out of town. Plan B involved hiking for an hour and eating at the first village along the San Xil route to Sarria.
Unfortunately, the cafe in Villa de Plan B was closed, so the crew reluctantly hiked on toward the next café shown on our trail app. But Café Numero Dos disappeared sometime between when our map was made and when we passed. The next several miles offered nothing at all, except deep woods, soggy and dripping from the recent rains, and a well-trodden trail filled with pilgrims all going the same direction and always in sight.
Breakfast and tea are only the first part of my morning routine, and somewhere between the “not-opens” and the “not-there’s” I began to feel the need for Part #2 of my daily duties. But at that point, El Camino was bordered by fences and high stone walls, too steep and unstable to be climbed, which prevented access to the woods and the cover I needed to take care of business.
Just as the old stone walls finally disappeared and I started scouting out escape routes, we rounded a bend and saw a small cluster of buildings, giving me hope of a village that could put the routine back in my morning groove.
But by the time we reached the first building, what had looked like a village morphed into a cluster of dilapidated barns and old stone ruins. My growing desperation had me considering invoking squatter’s rights in one of the abandoned sheds, but I couldn’t quite bear the thought of further despoiling their state of ruin, not to mention the risk of being caught with my pants down.
So, we walked on, passing barns, sheds, and fenced-off corrals that might have provided some cover if not for all the pilgrims, local farmers, and four-legged residents I’d need to dodge. We walked past crumbling farmhouses, store houses, and cow houses. But no outhouses.
At last, we came upon a tiny settlement, so small it was not even on our maps. Which also made it too small to support any cafés or albergues. But at the far end of the long, narrow, roadside community, we saw people standing in front of a dilapidated barn and farmhouse. The small crowd included some Minnesota college students we’d been seeing for the past few days. A few days back, I’d had a deep philosophical discussion with their leader, a Jesuit seminary student, as we walked.
The crowd gathered stopped where a local farmer sold fruit, bread, and water from a wobbly table set up between the house and barn. His food looked delicious, but my thoughts were on disposal, not intake. The farmer had just disappeared into the barn, so I asked my Jesuit friend if he knew “Donde esta uno bano?”
Strangely, after three weeks on the Camino, he did not know the word “bano,” which cost me a few precious seconds of translation. Eventually, he pointed me at the crumbling house saying that he’d seen someone go in there, that they spoke passable English, and that they might possibly help. At last, a glimmer of hope. But alas, when I peeked in the open door, I saw no one except a brown dog scratching at the back door.
Though mission control had queued the countdown and the launch engine was smoking, I was not so bold as to wander through the home uninvited and look for the facilities. Plus, from my quick scan through the open door, the chance of indoor plumbing was slim.
Desperate times call for desperate measures, so I told Mrs. The Incident to wait with the students and that I’d be back in a few minutes. I scurried off toward the edge of town, clenching with everything I had, hoping to find a path between the fields or into the woods. But as I left the barnyard, I realized that the trail was walled again for as far as I could see, making the abandoned, overgrown field behind the barn the only option that fit my mission parameters.
Yes, I know it is uncouth to set up one’s throne so near another man’s kingdom, but the farm was mostly abandoned and the adjacent pasture was heavily overgrown with weeds, brush, and small trees. More importantly, there were no viable alternatives. Besides, it was a barnyard. Its former residents had thoroughly christened it long ago.
I climbed the crumbling five-foot-high stone wall, still wearing my backpack and dangling my hiking poles from my wrists, and dropped into the pasture’s forest of weeds, vines, and saplings. This might not have been my best idea ever, but time was of the essence. The weed forest, still wet from last night’s rain, soaked my legs. Mats of tangled vines grabbed at my feet and poles, tripping me as I tried to get far enough away from the barn and trail to find shrubs big enough to screen a six foot-three-inch, 230-pound man wearing a bright white shirt and a lime green backpack from view.
By the time I finally found something close enough to my screening criteria, I’d started to crown. I grabbed at my belt buckle and began to assume the position. But my belt buckle was hopelessly tangled up with my pack’s hip belt, my money belt, and my shirt tails. I looked at the tangled mess, simultaneously counting the seconds and considering all options, but all this thinking cost me the last few precious seconds of the countdown.
The prairie dogs peeking out of their hole put me in a panic, and my conscious thought processes began to blur, so I resorted to violence. I yanked my pants as hard as I could down past my knees without unbuckling my belt, thanking Columbia outfitters for the stretch-to-fit waistband, and bent over just as the kids dove into the pool. Victory.
Except that even though my pants took the full trip to my ankles, my briefs lagged behind, just high enough to catch the full stampede out of the stockyards. So, there I was, in a half squat position, 45-lb backpack still on my back, poles strapped to my wrists, tangled vines around my feet, hip-deep in wet foliage, pants around my ankles, and undies just past the crack of dawn and full to the brim.
Ever the optimist, I thought that even though this situation was not good, it could be worse. I was still basically clean, not counting my favorite REI hiking undies. I just needed to figure out how to unload my burden without any further disaster.
And that’s when I fell over. Right onto my backside, planting my bare landing pad in the wet, green undergrowth. Which turned out to be pricker bushes. Pricker bushes that stung like thousands of tiny jellyfish. The internet tells me those devil’s leaves are called “nettles.” I will avoid nettles in the future, but at that moment I was still learning about their particulars.
After the Storm
Sitting on stinging nettle bushes with a man-sized diaper hanging between my legs was pretty close to the low point of the incident. Realizing that I had no other pants in my backpack and that even if I did, I probably shouldn’t touch anything I wanted to wear was a tad closer to this disaster’s nadir. When I realized that I was the only solution to this desperate problem, I knew I’d hit bottom.
A buttload of stinging nettles provide powerful motivation, but it still took some time to plan the attack and work up the nerve to execute it. Just as I formulated a plan, I caught some movement out of the corner of my eye and saw the blonde heads of those Minnesotan coeds bobbing down the trail. El Camino was not as far away as I had thought, nor was I as well screened as I hoped. I’ll never know if they saw me, but when I passed them the next day in Sarria, none of them made eye contact and I’m pretty sure I saw a few of them shudder with revulsion. Certainly, no handshakes or hugs were offered.
The Best Reason to Journal
Eventually, I got my pants off without compounding my personal toxicity any further, though not without exposing my now-bare legs to the nettles. Then came the sagging diaper, which I removed with near surgical precision. But no job is finished until the paperwork is done. I just needed to get into my emergency TP supply, which required some hand cleaning before touching my pack.
I tried wiping my hands on some of the local foliage, as it was so wet that it seemed likely to help, but instead I found more nettles, just as potent as the ones still stinging my landing zone and legs. With my hands cleaner but now on fire from nettle venom, I got into my pack and retrieved my TP supply, only to find just a few lonely sheets stuck to the cardboard tube.
Those poor paper soldiers and their cardboard commander fought bravely, but were hopelessly outnumbered and outflanked until I remembered my journal. After sacrificing a few blank pages, I eventually achieved a semblance of cleanliness. I wasn’t yet at allowed-back-in-the-house clean, but I’d at least progressed upward from Mumbai landfill status.
No Man Left Behind
Before I moved on, I still had a few nasty chores to complete. One of which was deciding what to do with my favorite boxers. They’d just performed a heroic act, so it didn’t seem right to leave them buried in dishonor amongst the nettles and cow pies. Plus, I only had one other pair and two more weeks of traveling ahead of me. But taking them with me in their current state of battle fatigue really wasn’t an option either.
Perhaps the burning nettles, the humiliation, or the fumes clouded my judgment, but I decided to bring them along, not entirely clean but at least not carrying the baggage they’d once held. Wiping them on the foliage did little except cause them to be covered by sticky nettle leaves and stems, though to be fair, the nettles didn’t fare so well either. I tried a makeshift aerial centrifuge, but that generated an unpredictable splash zone, which cost me a few more journal pages.
Making a mental note to carry extra Ziplock bags in the future, I stuffed the briefs in a dirty sock and then inside the complimentary plastic bag Virgin Atlantic had given me that I’d been using for my toiletries. I slid the toxic bomb in the outside mesh pocket of my backpack next to my trowel. The bomb squad would have to defuse it later.
After five more minutes of wriggling around in the nettles and wet grass, I finally got my pants back on. After a bit more work I mitigated most of the visual damage, though the olfactory injuries still lingered. The nettles were still firing at full strength all over my hands, arms, legs, and landing zone, but I was at last ready to get back to Mrs. The Incident and the trail.
By this time, Mrs. The Incident was more than a little concerned and was debating with The Incident, Jr. over whether I’d asked them to wait there or meet them down the trail. I walked up looking flushed and humiliated, catching them just in time. Mrs. I wanted to know where I’d been, but the only answer I’d give was that I had to see a man about a mule and there had been an incident.
Anyone who’s married knows that an answer like that does not stifle curiosity, especially someone with the tenacity of Princess Beastmode. But something about the look in my eye warned her to bide her time. Poppywacker gave me a long look and a slight nod, then put in his earbuds and turned away, asking no questions.
I still needed detoxicifation, but there was no running water handy, so I asked “Mrs. The Incident” to spit some water from her Camelback on my hands. It turned out she heard “spit” more clearly than “water” or “Camelback,” but her contribution still helped. Once we straightened out our communications, I cleaned up enough to dig out my extra hand sanitizer. I washed like I was prepping for surgery, except without sufficient water and from a significantly different starting point than most surgeons. Or at least I hope so.
On the Move
After that, we hoisted our packs and headed toward Sarria, thankful for a gentle crosswind and nearby cow pastures that drowned out my own scent, or at least give me plausible deniability. I’d catch Mrs. I staring at me curiously, but anytime she’d start to ask a question, one look from me told her now was not the time.
About a mile down the trail, we found an albergue with a small café, which fortunately had no other patrons. We dropped our packs by the street outside, mine with its toxic secret stashed in a pocket and the others unknowingly providing cover beside it.
We walked in, and I went straight for el bano for further scrubbing. Except that the soap dispenser was broken, empty and hanging off the wall. I had overcome so much already; I would not be held back by a broken soap dispenser. I dismantled it and filled the well with enough water to liquefy the dried-up soap inside, and washed my hands as best I could. Six times.
After coming out of the restroom, I sat down and looked at the menu laying on the table. And then went back and washed again. And then twice more.
Thanks, But No Thanks
The very helpful owner of the café saw our packs outside and insisted that we bring them inside to protect them from traffic on the narrow farm road. Unfortunately, that meant bringing my little bomb in too. We could not dissuade her. Maybe it was her long life on a dairy farm, or that the Virgin Airline bag and dirty sock held their battle line, but no one seemed to notice except me.
By the time we got to Sarria that afternoon, the embarrassment had faded almost as much as the smell. That is, both could be ignored with sufficient motivation and denial. The shame, however, hovered on the edge of my conscious thought for days, like an ethereal smelly ghost. A ghost that haunts me still.
That is the telling of the incident. A tale that will never be told again.
And yes, Jamie and Survivor, you knew it all along. Very clever.
And a special thanks to Scott Layman for providing the necessary bribe that made this post possible.
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