Travel is an adventure — a contact sport too — but who knew that sleep would be near the top of the sporting list on our recent nine-day, 62-mile pilgrimage on the Camino de Santiago in Spain.
A thousand years ago, pilgrims weren't sleeping in cushy hotels, they were sprawled on rocky ground, hiding in cornfields and, more recently, toughing it out in overheated and overcrowded hostels, 40 to a room, with toilets exploding every 10 minutes.
Our 14-person group, plus two guides, walked between 4 and 14 miles a day. We were whisked through the less scenic sections by motor coach and we slept in a different hotel every night with hot water, clean towels and fresh sheets. (Real pilgrims take a month, walking a full 450 miles, so we dubbed our trip "Camino Light" or, as Beth Espinoza called it, "Glamino.")
Sleeping became a relative term. Prior to this trip I was a champion sleeper. Not only was I a member of the International Sleeping Hall of Fame but I was generally disdainful of people who were less accomplished in the sleeping arts.
I was a snob and full of advice: "Don't look at the clock, it's not your friend. Don't worry about not sleeping. Eventually your body will take over and you will sleep, although it may take a few days, sleep will find you."
If I didn't believe in karma before the walk, I do now. When you stand astride humanity and judge your fellow man harshly, you're in for a Spanish wake-up call.
Our tour started in Burgos, Spain, where we would meet our fellow travelers. On our first night, Sue and I, my cousin Bea and Georgina (George) Newcombe from England met for tapas. Big Herb was in high spirits. Big Herb kept bringing tapas to the sidewalk table. Big Herb was filling glasses and drinking glasses of sangria like it was the last supper.
We had mussels in tomato sauce, three different kinds of fish, tortilla española, shrimp wrapped in bacon, croquettes and a cheese plate with goat cheese, manchego and blue cheese along with several baskets of bread.
That night, I woke up at 1 and thought I had caught fire. It was as if I had been transported into the Spanish Inquisition and I was engulfed in flames. Had I mistakenly misread the thermostat and turned on the heat? However, I couldn't turn on the light otherwise I might have awakened Sue.
I kept turning over and over like a rotisserie chicken but I finally fell asleep again until I was awakened by a dream where I was home in Bakersfield, just in time to witness a double murder in the family room, a very bad man was trying to get in the front door, which would not close, and I heard a commotion in the driveway where several juvenile delinquents were cutting up my paddle boards with a chainsaw.
Sleeping score, and you don't want to keep score: That night I slept two hours.
I was happy when morning came, happy to be alive, to eat breakfast, get on the bus, to hike, but in the back of my mind, I had suffered a crisis of confidence, a dent in my perfect sleep record.
Dinner the next night, which usually starts at 8 and ends at 10:30, was in our convent-turned-hotel and featured a leg of duck that I washed down with a shandy — beer mixed with lemonade — and a couple of glasses of red wine. I didn't skip the flan for dessert either.
I progressed from being on fire to thinking I might be having a heart attack. What would Sue do with the body? Would David, the tour leader, tie it to the top of the bus like they did with Aunt Edna in "National Lampoon's Vacation"? What if I never slept again? Will I be able to hike the remaining 50 miles or would I have to return home like the Spanish dog I was?
At one point, the church bells were ringing every 30 minutes, which is charming during the day but at night, when you are desperately trying to sleep, the bells might as well be broadcasting to the world, "He is not sleeping, he is still not sleeping."
Sleeping score for Day 2: two hours.
I've got to get smart. This isn't working. On day three, I resolved to forgo the 4 p.m. afternoon cortado, a small but mighty espresso drink, no red wine at dinner, no dessert and no afternoon nap.
I was playing defense. Defense can work or it can be a sign of weakness and desperation. Check box No. 2.
By the third night in our hotel in Astorga, which is known for its chocolate and had the best chocolate-covered orange sticks I'd ever had (dense dark chocolate covering orange peel), I was primed for sleep failure. I'd lost my confidence going in.
During the night I looked over at Sue who was sleeping peacefully. It looked so simple. How did she do it?
I tried not to hate her, resent her, and resisted the urge to put a pillow over her head because I was miserable and she was not. I tried to will her into waking up so that I would have a companion on my long journey into the night but she continued to sleep like a baby chinchilla.
Day 3 sleep score: two hours.
At breakfast the next morning, I realized that sleep is divided into the haves and the have-nots. If you are in the haves, you are either gloating or not obsessing thinking about sleep because it comes so naturally. If you are in the have-nots, you are sad, bitter, miserable, and full of ill will.
The next day, we hiked to the Iron Cross, a total of eight miles. The Iron Cross is where pilgrims (more than 400,000 people do the hike every year starting from Portugal, Spain or France) deposit a stone they have carried from home at the base of the cross in hopes that they might shed a burden, be forgiven for their sins or honor someone who has been dear to them.
Sharon Miller, one of our fellow travelers from Carmel Valley, had brought the ashes of her husband of 50 years who had died last year. I turned to her and said, "Have you already spread your husband's ashes?" wanting to acknowledge her sorrow and be at one with her healing.
Sharon looked at me funny because "Sharon" turned out to be George, whose husband, last time she checked, had been back in England, robust and perfectly alive. It was not quite as bad as asking a woman who had gained a few pounds when her baby was due, something I had done once years ago, but it wasn't a real strong moment either.
You never know. Alive one minute and dead the next.
That night at dinner, my fellow pilgrims realized I might require some sleep intervention. Cousin Bea offered me Tylenol PM, Diane from Monterey gave me a packet of melatonin and that night, I swallowed my pride as well as one melatonin, spiking it with a Tylenol PM.
Day 4 sleep score: six hours.
I was a new man. Why would I ever make a big deal about sleep? I was ready to take a walk, which is what the Camino is about. Listen to my fellow pilgrims. Give them advice, on anything, now that I had regained my lofty perch.