t has been a little more than a year, now. I remember well the day. It was filled with the kind of eruptions seemingly about nothing in particular that, in a marriage, are too often the harbingers of something very particular. Such arguments always seem random and senseless at the time. Only in hindsight do we recognize them as volcanic, arising from deep, unseen fissures that open slowly as a relationship comes apart. They may lie dormant for a while, but eventually they widen and explode. A critical eruption in my life came at ten o’clock in the evening of July 17, 2015, when my wife of five years asked for a divorce. I lacked the will to fight. The truth be told, I felt a strange mixture of fear and relief that she had spoken out loud what we’d both been thinking.
It was not the first time. There had been tremors before. We had separated the previous May, then had a change of heart in June. Now, the pendulum had swung back. I felt a sense of defeat, of inevitability.
Divorce, that always inopportune change of life, happened at an especially inopportune time for me. Six weeks earlier, I had been rescued five hundred miles south of Nova Scotia in the Atlantic Ocean after my thirty-foot ketch started taking on water from structural damage. Offered rescue by a passing ship, I made the decision to abandon my boat and my quest to sail solo to Ireland, where my wife and I had planned to reunite and, however naïvely, renew our vows. A week later I returned to Charleston amid some modest fanfare from an AP story about the rescue, but deep down I was still adrift. I was embarrassed about how the voyage had ended. I felt a little foolish and more than a little sad. I had failed. Six months earlier, the world had looked much brighter.
On January 1, 2015, I had sold my North Carolina law practice to a large firm, found a home for my employees, and, at the age of 56, walked away from a satisfying, thirty-year career as a trial lawyer. I wasn’t rich, but I was excited and animated by the new possibilities for my life, which is a feeling money can’t buy. My wife had taken a big job for a six-figure salary in her home town and moved back ahead of me to the lovely house where she had lived before we married. Selling my practice in Raleigh made it possible for me to join her. My children were out of college, away from home, and happily employed. I felt the pressure of professional life and the burden of being the primary breadwinner subside for the first time in three decades. I had high hopes for a more fulfilling future as a part-time novelist and a full-time English teacher. I took and passed my teaching certification exams, but my job-search sputtered. Although I applied to dozens of schools in the spring of 2015, the door to full-time employment remained shut.
The fall semester promised new opportunities for employment in teaching, but in the meantime, I looked forward to my first summer off in forty years. I owned an old sailboat, and the sea beckoned. A solo passage to Ireland offered a grand adventure and some publicity for my third novel, then in progress. The two months I planned to take to complete the voyage would fulfill the sea-time requirement to renew the commercial captain’s license I had acquired in 1992—handy, we thought, for a possible future venture running weekend charters. Even better, the marina rates in Ireland were half the cost of berthing a boat in Charleston Harbor. Better still, the savings on slip rent meant we could keep the boat as a second home in Europe and afford romantic getaways as we’d done before in the Bahamas and the Dominican Republic. But all those dreams slipped beneath the waves when Prodigal was lost. Six weeks after I returned from that disastrous passage, my marriage had foundered and sunk as well—my second marriage, mind you. I was embarrassed. I felt foolish. I had failed—again.
On that night of July 17, the new reality of my life was defined by everything that was missing from it: I had no job, no title, no staff, no office to go to every morning, no reason to put on a smart suit and tie, no clients clamoring for my advice, no house, no home, no boat—and, suddenly, no wife and no plan. There was very little left of the identity I had created for myself over the past forty years. Everything had changed, and so I made a decision to change everything.
Over the course of the next three weeks, I sold all that I owned—that is, whatever I didn’t absolutely need that anyone would buy, which was nearly all of it: a car, a truck, a grand piano, a canoe, a pop-up camper, toys and gear and equipment and computers and books and artwork and jewelry and knickknacks of all descriptions. The rest I gave away or left behind. At the same time, I began buying the tools of a pilgrim: a backpack, good boots, a sleeping bag, rain gear. Most importantly, I bought a plane ticket—to Dublin.
With nowhere in particular to go, I decided to go to Ireland, the land of my lately disappointed dreams, and wander awhile. I needed to live frugally, that much was clear, but I wasn’t about to surrender to fear over money, slink back to Raleigh, tail tucked between my legs, and resume the practice of law. I was in reasonably good shape, physically. Backpacking across Europe was something I had always regretted not doing after college and had never thereafter had the means or time to do. The liberation and excitement of simplifying my life and embarking on a new adventure obscured, for a time, the sadness of what was prompting those changes. I flew to Ireland on August 11 and set out on the Wicklow Way, a hiking trail through the rolling hills south of Dublin.
The first night, I was caught unawares by a feeling of abject loneliness in the small bivouac I had pitched in an unnamed wood. On the second day, still resolute, I chanced to meet four women who cheered me with stories of the Camino de Santiago de Compostela, the “Way of Saint James,” an ancient footpath travelled by pilgrims for a thousand years to the shrine of the apostle in Spain. If I ever wanted to go, they explained, I needed only to take a cheap flight from Dublin to Biarritz, and from there a train to St. Jean Pied de Port, in France, where the pilgrimage begins. They wished me well and left me alone again with my thoughts.
By the morning of the third day, despair had set in along with the stark reality that I had lost much of what I had once known as “my life.” I was overwhelmed. Starved for sleep, I found myself literally without the physical strength to climb the modest hill that loomed before me. I turned back, found a bed and breakfast with an Internet connection, and hastily wrote an email to my wife with a subject line that read, “Please Take Me Back.” I also wrote to friends, whom I had left with the glib and false impression that I was happily resolved to return to the single life, and admitted that I felt very much at the end of my rope. I needed rescue, but rescue came in an unexpected form. My wife answered my plea with a simple but firm refusal. In the end it would be her greatest gift to me: the gift of finality and clarity from which come healing and acceptance. There was no going back, this time. The only way left to me was the way forward.
It was then I vaguely recalled the sparse details of my conversation with the four women. Over the next twenty-four hours, I winnowed my possessions further—some thirty pounds’ worth. My bed-and-breakfast hosts became the startled recipients of various items of camping gear I wouldn’t need or couldn’t bear to carry on the 530 miles of the Camino. I shipped a laptop and cameras and cables and hard drives back to friends in the USA and boarded a plane. I had no guidebook. In fact, I barely knew where or what the Camino was. I relied heavily on the vague advice that all would be clear once I arrived in St. Jean. It was not.
The people at the help desk in the Biarritz airport spoke only French, not English or Spanish. Through a series of pantomimes, a pleasant woman explained that I was to walk outside to the curb and wait for the bus to Bayonne. In Bayonne I had my first meal in a French café, then more pantomimes with other pleasant people revealed that I was to take a second bus from there to St. Jean. By then I had joined a small knot of anxious pilgrims, all making our way for the first time to the same strange place. The volunteers staffing the tiny office set up in St. Jean spoke very little English but could not have been more caring. When it became clear that every albergue (hostel) in the village was full, they led me and twenty other late-arrivers to a gymnasium to spend the night in our sleeping bags on wrestling mats.
On the first morning of the Camino, I lacked a key bit of information. I had no idea which way to go. I learned then the most valuable lessons of life as a pilgrim: humility and patience. I didn’t know everything anymore. In fact, I didn’t know much of anything. I was dependent on others. I needed their help, and I needed to be willing to wait for it. I had to follow and trust people other than myself. And I did.
Through the happenstance and serendipity by which friendships are so often made on the Camino, I made new friends every day. We shared directions, advice, bandages, hopes, fears, sorrows, and stories. For so little money, I enjoyed simple and delicious meals and good wine. I savored, even more than the tapas, long hours of conversation with pilgrims from Australia, Malaysia, Germany, England, Ireland, Spain, Belgium, Russia, Norway, Poland, Italy, Denmark, France, Argentina, Brazil, South Africa, Slovakia, and a dozen other countries I can’t remember.
The giant botafumeiro spreads incense throughout the medieval cathedral in Santiago, where the altar enshrines the tomb of Saint James. The botafumeiro was originally used to fumigate the unwashed hordes of pilgrims who came to the shrine of the apostle from all over Europe by the millions throughout the Middle Ages, seeking absolution.
Through it all, for two months and five hundred miles, I steadfastly refused to read a guidebook. Each day, I had no idea what lay ahead, how far I would go, when the next albergue would appear, or where I would find an open bed for the night. I simply walked and followed my fellow pilgrims. When I was thirsty, a village fountain would eventually appear, flowing with cool, clear water. When I was hungry, I would pass a café around a corner in a tiny village, its cases filled with food and its taps glistening with sweat from ice-cold San Miguel beer. New people and places and experiences and insights came to me when they were most needed, as if by the mystery of providence, every day. The Camino changed my life, and when I finally saw the giant botafumeiro soaring through the corridors of the cathedral in Santiago, my life changed again. Having failed at so much of late, I felt astonishing success when I reached the ocean at Finisterre. But my progress as a pilgrim didn’t end there.
I was still on the Camino when I formed the plan come to Great Britain after I finished. I wanted a quiet place to hunker down for the winter and finish writing The Passage, which had been put on hold with all that followed the decision to divorce. A cottage on those lush, mist-soaked hills of Wales seemed the best, and importantly, most affordable choice. It was a brilliant choice at that. It rained every day in the little town of Machynlleth (pronounced “Mack-HUNK-leth” by the Welsh), forcing me to sit indoors and write. I was also befriended and encouraged by my landlord’s two cats, who sat on my desk while I toiled over my work, scowling disapproval whenever I left to warm myself by the wood stove, make another cup of the ubiquitous tea with milk, or fry up a bit of sausage and mash. When the clouds parted, I would dash out for a four-mile walk along the river into town in my newly acquired Wellie boots and wax coat—the essential livery of all Welsh travelers. Such shades of green as there are in the countryside of Wales I have seen nowhere else but the Emerald Isle, which shares much the same climate.
While my words marched across the page, time marched on as well. I felt a tinge of uneasiness born of the impermanence of my situation. As much as I enjoyed life as a lodger in other people’s homes, it hardly seemed a good arrangement for the long term. Moreover, I remained in Great Britain only at the pleasure of the government, which had given me a maximum of six months to enjoy the privilege. Although my grandfather was born in London in 1878, this afforded me, as an American, no special right to remain in the country of his birth. I had to get out by April 12, 2016, per the warning clearly stamped on my passport. I needed a plan. Once again I looked to the sea.
A well-found cruising sailboat is a many-splendored thing: a magic carpet, a snug and safe home in all weathers, a marvel of engineering, a figment of romance, a bearer of dreams. I should know. I have loved many of them and lost two of them at sea. Acquiring a third seemed to tempt fate, but I had safely called fate’s bluff when I left America. I knew the sailing life as well as I knew any life outside a courtroom. I warmed to the idea of another boat, but it would have to be a modest vessel at a modest price. There are many such boats, forgotten and unloved, with good bones and strong hearts, languishing in the marinas of the world. It was just a matter of finding the right one.
My search for the particular magic carpet that would carry me away started in November 2015 and took me along Britain’s remarkable railway system to Plymouth, on the southern coast, Walton-on-Naze, in the East, and Pwllheli (pronounced “Pull-HELLY”) in northern Wales. But these travels revealed no suitable vessel for my adventure. I despaired of the sailing plan altogether and considered finding new lodging for the spring and summer elsewhere, but before long an old British-built boat—one of the famed Nicholson 32s by Camper-Nicholson–caught my eye. There reportedly are more people who have flown in outer space than have circumnavigated in small sailboats, but no fewer than eight Nicholson 32s have circled the globe. The great number of them still available on the used boat market in Britain and elsewhere is testament to their sound construction.
I moved from Wales to London in January, continued to toil away at The Passage, and in February purchased the 1967 Nicholson 32 that I renamed Nevermore, borrowing from Poe’s famous poem, The Raven. My reasons were not as macabre as Poe’s. The name for me signified that this was my last chance. There would never be another boat, another time, or another hope for the sailing adventure of my dreams. She would not only be my home. I resolved to take her around the world. When all was ready, I sailed into the English Channel at Calais, bound for the Canary Islands.
The passage to the island of La Palma spanned eighteen days and a total of 2,215 miles for an average speed of a little more than five miles per hour—my longest and most successful nonstop ocean passage to-date. Most of that time was spent hundreds of miles out to sea, but for two days a southwest gale forced me close to the northwestern tip of Spain. I sailed within twenty miles of the cliffs of Finisterre, where I had finished the Camino seven months earlier and sat wondering where life might take me next. Then, I had never dreamed it would take me once again to sea, much less to the very patch of ocean before my eyes. After the disaster that had befallen Prodigal the year before, seeing the volcanic peak of La Palma rise 8,000 feet on the horizon on the morning of May 23, 2016, after eighteen days alone at sea, was not just a thrill. It was a requiem for all that I had lost.
As I write these words, I am enjoying life back in London while Nevermore tugs at her dock lines in La Palma. The next passage, 3,100 miles nonstop across the Atlantic to St. Lucia, looms large in my imagination. Hurricane season must pass first, but it will pass. If all goes as planned, I will board a plane for La Palma in December, and Nevermore will sail again in January. It is already September, but there is yet a little time to savor the past and ponder the vast unknown that has become my future—a pilgrimage to my own dreams. Yet as ethereal as dreams can be, today the ground feels surprisingly firm under my feet.
When I finished the Camino and arrived in Finisterre—a village whose name means literally “the end of the earth”—it seemed I had nowhere else to go. The eruptions that had ended my marriage and thrown my feet upon the Way of St. James had been violent and transformative. As if to underscore the all-too-real fact that I had been pushed to the brink—to the end of my rope, as I described it at the time—I had followed the pilgrim way to that most final of all ending places, where lost souls seeking absolution had for centuries literally chased God into the sea. But as I would come to learn, that place and that time was not the end—not the end of the world, or my life, or of me.
The strange and wonderful truth about volcanoes is that, for all their destructiveness, they are the only things on Earth that can actually create something new under the sun. While climbing the summit in La Palma last June, I heard hikers remark that there are acres of land formed by volcanic eruptions on the island that are only fifty years old. Imagine that. After four billion years, the Earth is still erupting and reinventing itself. Why should we be any different?
In the year since I wept in a nameless wood as a friendless foreigner on Irish soil, much of the chaff in my life has been burned away. All of my clothes now fit in a small carry-on bag, and I still feel like I have too much. Everything else I own, including the boat on which I will live and travel, fits into a thirty-two by nine-foot space. I have developed a visceral aversion to shopping and the acquisition of “things.” I want for nothing—not because I have so much, but because the things I value are so few and mostly free. I earn a pittance from my novels, but I owe no one a dime. Yet for all I have lost, whole new vistas have appeared as if by magic before my eyes.
There are people in countries all over the world—fellow pilgrims I met along the Way of St. James—who know my name and share a special part of my memories, who wish me well and carry my good will in return. They follow my progress through life as I follow theirs. There are people here in London and all across England and Wales who think of me, worry about me, love and care for me. These are souls who were unknown to me and I to them before the eruptions in my life cast me out into the void. They softened my fall. They are as new soil under my feet, the firm ground upon which I travel. “Leap,” John Burroughs wrote, “and the net will appear.” How very true. If only we could so believe, what a solid footing, and a loving embrace, we would find.