Here is the piece I read at the Mad Open Mic on March 4 in Madrid:
The Highest Mile
Every pilgrim on the Camino de Santiago finds God — that's what a priest told me, and maybe I did, even though I didn't have time to hike to the whole way from Madrid to Santiago de Compostela.
Instead, I spent a summer day hiking the most challenging segment of the route, the part that goes from the town of Cercedilla up the Guadarrama Mountains to Fuenfría Pass. It follows the old Roman road that connected Toledo to Segovia.
Each year, 100,000 people hike the route across northern Spain and only a few dozen take the Madrid route, but the path up the mountain was beautiful, flanked by flowers of every color, with magnificent views and constant bird song. A few cows wandered the slopes. Only occasionally did other hikers cross the trail. I had solitude and a chance to wonder what God might be like.
But as I got close to the top, the scenery became a little bleak. The trees and wild flowers were stunted. The old stone pavement had deteriorated into a rough, rocky trail. The air was chilly and damp, and I was getting tired. Ahead, though, I saw a break in the trees.
I hurried up the last few feet to the clearing, and then suddenly the ground was level, covered by low grass and bare rocks. On the far side of the meadow, the path went downhill. I was finally at Fuenfría Pass.
I sat down on a flat rock to eat a snack and ignored the slightly fragrant cow patties that pocked the meadow. Santiago de Compostela was only 599 kilometers away, according to a granite marker next to me.
These days, only cattle and hikers use the old road, but for centuries there was no other way across the mountains. My footsteps had followed those of kings, merchants, priests, poets, armies, artists, herdsmen, migrant farm workers, and, back in medieval times, tens of thousands of pilgrims.
Did I feel closer to God alone in that ancient mountain pass?
Clouds scudded low, obscuring the mountains on either side, which funneled cold wind through the pass. Pine trees were blasted and bent like bonsais. I unwrapped a granola bar with numb fingers and meditated as I munched. A few drops of frigid rain fell. Ravens cawed in the pine trees, then flew off.
It was not a peaceful place. No one would want to linger long in Fuenfría Pass. Instead, it offered a glimpse of a vast, restless power, its majesty weighted by long history. It was awful in the word's old, reverent meaning: full of awe. Rather than trying to get closer to God, I decided that it might be prudent to maintain a respectful distance.
I finished eating, carefully looked around one more time, and began my hike back home.