As I said, Bret and I were in a state of constant amazement at the elegance, grandeur, and sheer beauty of the Monasteries of San Millán de la Cogolla.
“Timbo,” Bret kept saying. “It’s like Disneyland and everything is free because everyone went home!”
I kept commenting that the Yuso Monastery reminded me of a set you might see in an Indian Jones film. Imagine looking through a kaleidoscope and seeing in its mirrored images a part of time that no longer exists. Even though monks still grace the hallways and rooms of this massive structure, one can get a sense of the timelessness and history that occurred within the walls. I would imagine there are very few places in the world that still give you this kind of window into the past, and it is for this reason that the Monasteries of San Millán de la Cogolla have been named a UNESCO World Heritage Site; That and it was at the Yuso Monastery where the first piece of Castilian literature was written.
For the first two days we couldn’t figure out why no one was around, however, eventually someone told us that at this time of the year everyone is at the beach. Only a bunch of yahoo-Americans trying (pretending - it’s a fine line) to do a travel show would be walking around the mountains and plains of Spain in the July heat.
Yelling at the Top of our Lungs
Since Jack Will Travel landed in Madrid, it has been pure chaos. We have been running at record speed from one town to the next, from one bar to another, as one mis-adventure after the next unfolds. The pace at which we have been moving has carried with it a record decibel level in our heads. I feel as if, as a writer, I have just been yelling at the top of my lungs, trying frantically to catch up on all the fun, the madness, the stories, the disagreements over what part of Carmen Park in Logroño to slum it in, to where, when, and what to eat. In the process, I feel as if I had lost my voice and Jack Will Travel has not yet found its voice either.
What I was tending to forget because I was a bit rusty, is that there is a rhythm to traveling, just like there is a rhythm to writing, just like there is a rhythm to any endeavor that involves the creative process. Any artistic undertaking requires the ability to tap into a moment, a time, a place, and the ability to sustain that energy. It really is quite a challenge. Your head can’t be doggy-paddling in the future or drowning in the past. It must be attached to your body, which is attached to your legs, which must be firmly planted in the moment. The creative process is about finding flow and Jack Will Travel has not had any sort of flow whatsoever – up until now that is. It took everything that could possibly go wrong to go wrong, as well as us going our own separate ways and then finding each other to get into a flow.
It has been, after all, two years since Bret and I had seen each other. We said our goodbyes in Amsterdam two years ago at the end of Jack Will Travel 1.0 and since then our only communications have consisted of a few Skype conversations during which he served as an ESL teacher in Shanghai and I did my thing in Seattle. It takes time to get into a creative rhythm with another person and it certainly is a process. Being that one of our mottos is “Trust the Process,” that was something we were not doing.
When you lose your voice or when you get sick, you need rest, and that is what Jack Will Travel did for 3 days in the towns of Berceo and San Millán de la Cogolla.
Wasting Away the Days in Youthful Bliss
I felt as if Bret and I had become the Lego or Playmobile figures of my youth, walking around some medieval castle I may have received for Christmas or my birthday. For three days we hiked in and around these two monasteries and I couldn’t help imaging what it would have been like to walk these hills so many centuries ago.
One of the things I struggle with, and what I think each of us has to discover and consider in our lives, is what it is that ignites our passion, and for these men it was contemplating the great mystery of God and life. I imagine for these men that everything that made its home in the foothills of these mountains was a clue into the existence of God, and it was God that ignited the passion of these men. Mother Theresa said, “We need to find God, and he cannot be found in noise and restlessness. God is the friend of silence. See how nature - trees, flowers, grass- grows in silence; see the stars, the moon and the sun, how they move in silence.” Silence in these hills comes in a symphony of nature, and the picture is of vineyards, poppy fields, and trees painted in Monarch butterflies.
Since the 6th Century when Saint Millán made his home in a cave that is now part of the Suso Monetary, monks, simple men who walked the earth, lived cloistered lives of contemplation while attending to the business of the monastery; gardening, attending to the orchards, cooking, keeping everything spotless, and “Cleaning the place as if the pope were on his way.” This is actually a line from the once Poet Laureate Billy Collins. I had just read his poem, Advice to Writers, a few days before and it was fresh in my head. Seeing as this was the birthplace of the Castilian language, and that I usually maniacally clean before I sit down to write, I kept thinking about it, as well as the saying cleanliness is next to Godliness.
Advice To Writers by Billy Collins
Even if it keeps you up all night,
wash down the walls and scrub the floor
of your study before composing a syllable.
Clean the place as if the Pope were on his way.
Spotlessness is the niece of inspiration.
The more you clean, the more brilliant
your writing will be, so do not hesitate to take
to the open fields to scour the undersides
of rocks or swab in the dark forest
upper branches, nests full of eggs.
When you find your way back home
and stow the sponges and brushes under the sink,
you will behold in the light of dawn
the immaculate altar of your desk,
a clean surface in the middle of a clean world.
From a small vase, sparkling blue, lift
a yellow pencil, the sharpest of the bouquet,
and cover pages with tiny sentences
like long rows of devoted ants
that followed you in from the woods.
Could I Live This Cloistered Life?
Thinking back to my most heavy, introspective days, days that were as destructive as they were enlightening as I struggled desperately to figure out what It was all about, I could actually see myself ten centuries ago as a young monk contemplating existence in this monastery. But I would imagine, much like Goldman from Hermann Hesse’s Narcissus and Goldman, I would have had to leave the monastery to actually taste the real nectar of what life has to offer. I think there is only so much one can garner from contemplation. There comes a time when you need to test the true value of the wisdom and knowledge that is derived from contemplation and apply it to the world and its inhabitants. But I would not have lasted too long in the monastic world for the main reason being - as Bret said in the Ramblings in a Monastery podcast, “With all those boobies outside the walls, I’d be busting out of this place.” The other challenging problem of living the monastic life is that we are not just spirits; we are complex beings made of mind, body, and soul, and I’m not afraid to admit that I rather like indulgences of the flesh, in fact – for the most part, I enjoy my vices.
But I can’t help but imagine being in a flow of life where what you are tuned into is not the television or the happenings of the world through the lens of CNN, but the rhythms that are going on within you and within in the season; Being so in tune with nature that you can gaze out your window each day and notice the changing landscape as the drama, the joy, and the wrath of the each season’s personality unfolds before your eyes.
Things That Were Discussed While Roaming the Hills
Walking in these hills was quite symphonic; the birds, the breeze, the buzz of the bees against the atmospheric backdrop. It gave rise to many intelligent conversations such as:
- Discussing how we look like German hikers because of all our gear and quick dry clothing, which led to a discussion about how we believe German hikers are the best hikers because they are all engineers, therefore highly organized and thus pack and plan well. “Industrious little bastards,” Bret added. “And let’s not forget they make great cars,” I said. Which lead to an agreement that they make very good appliances as well.
- This lead to a conversation about how there is a system to everything we are doing in our travels and endeavor to create – a travel show? Let’s say content at the moment. Every morning we were are constantly discovering new ways to pack our bags, lighten our load, or distribute the weight throughout our packs. And then there is the process of moving content back and forth between four cameras and two computers (well, at one point it was four cameras). It is a constant process and refinement of process, which is much like life. On the trail though, you have to be constantly refining your system. It has to be boiled down to be quick and light. It is the ultimate exercise in economy, and there really is no room for excess, unless of course you have a wig or ridiculous glasses.
- We could not leave the Germans well enough alone and discussed how their language is somewhat direct. We decided that “ich muss”, which means “I must” is really all you need to know to get what you need in Germany;
- Ich muss beer
- Ich muss sex
- Ich muss eat
- We also discussed how the Jack Will Travel philosophy is the same as our life philosophy; have the best time possible, learn as much as possible, and don’t harm anyone. And if you do harm someone, buy them a bottle of wine.
- The “Bro-slap” was also established. This is when one heterosexual male is forced to apply sun block to the back of another heterosexual male because there are no females around to do this. To assert your heterosexuality in this situation, when finished applying sun block to the male, you slap his back with manly assertiveness, which was evinced by a very pronounced hand print on my back for a good hour.
- Finally, among other things, we discussed our business model. “You know what I think we need to do to make Jack Will Travel really work?” I asked Bret. “Keep going on vacation,” he replied. It was nice to be in agreement.