I will be posting a few entries about my experience at the 2020 Gathering of American Pilgrims on the Camino, the annual meeting in the United States of Camino enthusiasts. It was my first time to attend the Gathering, and I was very excited about going, fired up about seeing Lake Tahoe for the first time, and eager to present my new book, Savoring the Camino de Santiago, to a Camino audience.
In the days immediately following my trip to the Gathering, I wrote a column for my website (“March Madness” at www.BayouCityPress.com) reporting on three trips I had taken in March, the last of them to the Gathering, held March 12-15, 2020, at Zephyr Point on Lake Tahoe. Much of the following text about the Gathering comes from that column.
Sometimes I have an overactive imagination. In the weeks leading up to the Gathering, and somewhat inspired by all the wacky costumes I had seen at Mardi Gras, I decided to put together a Camino costume, one with elements of what a medieval pilgrim might have worn. I trolled my closet and found a tabard I already had, one decorated with the Jerusalem cross. I ordered a felt hat and attached a Camino shell to it. I had a black cloak I could use. It wasn’t brown and didn’t reach to the floor, but it was a good approximation of the cloak Medieval pilgrims wore. I tried to order a six-foot staff (how am I going to get that on the plane, I wondered), but was unsuccessful in finding one I could buy in time for the Gathering. So, I had my costume: tabard, hat, cloak. I thought of the outfit as a marketing tool, a way to call attention to myself and hence to my book, which covers quite a bit of Camino history.
Before my trip, I worried much more about putting together my Camino costume than I did about navigating snow, even though “snow flurries” were predicted for the Lake Tahoe area. I briefly rooted around in my closet trying to find a pair of snow boots that I could still wear, and considered taking along a heavy winter coat. “Nah,” I thought. “Too heavy, too bulky, too difficult to take with me. How much snow could there be when it is 80 degrees in Houston?”
Because of the dismal turn out at the writers’ conference that I had attended the week prior to the Gathering, I emailed the coordinator of the Gathering to make sure the Gathering was still going forward. “Yes,” Sara responded immediately, “we’re on. We’ve only had three cancellations so far.” So, I packed my bags, including a large number of copies of my book, hopeful that I would be able to sell them at the Gathering.
Flights to Sacramento from Houston were much more numerous and with better schedules than flights into Reno, so I had opted to fly into Sacramento and rent a car to drive to Zephyr Point, rather than to fly into the much closer Reno airport. Zephyr Point lies right on Lake Tahoe, across the state line from California in Nevada. Even with the longer drive from Sacramento to Zephyr Point, my travel times in going through Sacramento had me departing Houston and arriving at the conference at more appropriate times than would have the few flights into Reno. Choosing Sacramento over Reno proved to be a fateful decision.
The Houston airport was bustling. My flight to Sacramento was almost full. If people were worried about the coronavirus, you couldn’t prove it by what I saw. Travel seemed to be proceeding as usual.
The journey from the Sacramento airport to the conference site only took me about two and a half hours, even though it was up a twisty mountain road. Some snow, but not much, still blanketed the shady sides of the road as I progressed up the mountain. I got to the meeting site in good time, still in the daylight, but the covered parking spots were already all taken. I had to park my rental SUV in an uncovered spot.
I parked and left my suitcase in the SUV until I could figure out the best unloading site. I didn’t want to heft my suitcase any more times than I absolutely had to. I searched around and found the building with the reception desk for the Gathering. I quickly found out that the Zephyr Point Conference Center was not laid out in a logical manner, with relevant buildings spread out all over a generous campus. By the time I checked in, a welcome reception had already started, to be followed by the 2020 Gathering group photo. I got instructions to my assigned room, which seemed to include a large number of unavoidable steps, and so decided to wait until after the evening’s activities before hauling my belongings to my room.
The events that Thursday evening were great, but I was distracted by not knowing when or how I was going to find my room and drag my heavy suitcase there.
Conference attendance was down. The “only three cancellations” had morphed into many, many more. Conference organizers said there were 150 people present on Thursday night, but I think 120 attendees was closer to the mark. From the first, the conference organizers seemed spooked. Interestingly, the concerns expressed by the organizers had nothing to do with the coronavirus, but rather everything to do with the weather. Giving a nod to the coronavirus, we were urged to “elbow bump” rather than shake hands or hug, and we were asked to help out the kitchen staff by pitching in and sanitizing tables after meals. Otherwise, we just acted as if everything were normal. We sat close together in sessions and at meals, we shared rooms with strangers, we touched and passed around silent auction, raffle, and sale items. No one wore a mask.
On Friday morning, I awoke eager for the first session to start. The weather was unexpectedly nice, with beautiful views of the lake and encircling mountains through the conference room windows. The beauty of Lake Tahoe was apparent; the location, with mountains ringing the lake, reminded me of Lake Atitlan in Guatemala, where surrounding volcanoes are reflected in the water.
Vendors like me, most of us selling books or essential oils or other natural products, were placed outside on the balcony, from where we could enjoy the lovely weather and view but step into the meeting room when sessions began. I wore my full pilgrim regalia. Other conference attendees probably thought I was nuts, but what the heck? Weren’t we all a bit nuts to choose to walk the Camino? I received comments like “Cool hat” and “Nice outfit.” Camino folks are uncommonly kind. The comment I most often got was, “Did you make your outfit?” I guess Camino folks are also determinedly do-it-yourselfers. “No,” I had to reply, “the only thing I did was sew the cockleshell onto my hat.”
Sometime during that Friday, the president of the board of American Pilgrims on the Camino announced that weather conditions were worsening. The forecast for the rest of the weekend, and on into the next week, were poor. There was a window of opportunity to leave that night, so those who could do so might want to leave after the Friday evening events, to get down from the mountain while the roads were still open. Over the course of the day, the whole schedule for Friday and Saturday was reconfigured to try to cram in as much as possible on Friday. Beloved parts of the schedule, such as a silent auction and raffle, were moved up to that evening.
I thought hard about leaving Friday evening. I had just gotten there, my first Gathering, and to leave after only one day would be a big sacrifice. I called United Airlines to see if I could move up my flight, and was told that the wait time to speak to someone was two hours. I didn’t want to wait on hold for two hours and miss the Gathering. If I left, it would be a departure at 9 PM or later. It also meant I would have to drive on a dark, winding, mountainous, snowy road with which I was not unfamiliar. I elected to stay until Saturday, to see how things developed.
The printed schedule for the Gathering had been out the window starting on Friday morning. News reports about the weather—not coronavirus—were eagerly sought by Gathering attendees. Were the roads down the mountain open? Were planes flying? With no television in the guest rooms, we had to go to the internet to seek weather updates. The Zephyr Point representative who attended meals was eagerly sought out for his knowledge of area roads.
I wondered about how many of us would depart after activities on Friday night. On Saturday morning we got a look at who remained. About 50 of us were still in attendance. Conference organizers said we should give ourselves a pat on the back for being the ones who didn’t give up, who kept going when the going got rough, but perhaps we should more accurately have been called the foolhardy.
Some panelists who had not departed on Friday night were asked to make second presentations, to cover for the panelists who had not come at all or who had left early. As for the sessions, I particularly liked the ones focusing on history. The chair of American Pilgrims again suggested we might want to take advantage of a window of opportunity and go home on Saturday afternoon. I thought about it, and I again elected to stay another day.
By Sunday morning the snow had set in for real. It was, indeed, a blizzard, a blizzard for which I was not prepared. I had not packed boots or a heavy coat, but I did have layers I could don. My pilgrim hat, complete with a cockleshell, symbol of the Camino de Santiago, kept the snow off my head. The conference organizers, having maintained all along that the conference would continue through until its scheduled conclusion on Sunday afternoon, with the Board members of the organization staying until Monday or later, now said that the conference was cancelled. They were leaving, and we should, too, though we could stay overnight Sunday if we preferred to wait another day (or more) to see if the weather cleared.
That settled it for me. With no conference underway, and the conference organizers leaving, it was time to get out of Dodge. I went out to the car park and looked at my rental SUV, which was buried in about three feet of snow. Of course there was no ice scraper or snow removal tool in the vehicle. One of the things I had promised myself after my last winter in Washington, DC, was never to shovel a car out of the snow again. But here I was, having to do just that, and without the proper tools. As is said, Woman proposes but God disposes.
Julio, a conference participant with whom I had talked quite a lot, was in even worse shape. His sedan had neither 4-wheel drive nor snow chains, a requirement for driving on mountainous roads once snow started. He borrowed a shovel from the conference center and disinterred his car, then gave me the shovel to use on my SUV. He started off, but was back quickly—his car couldn’t manage the snowy mountain roads. Julio asked me to drive him down to the local Safeway so that he could buy chains, which I did after finishing digging my car out.
That short drive down to the Safeway gave me confidence that my rented SUV could handle the snow. Back at the Zephyr Point Conference Center, I loaded my still-heavy bags into the car-I didn’t sell as many books as I had hoped to the reduced number of attendees–and took off for Sacramento.
I say “took off,” but I should say “crawled.” The first 12 miles were slow, but the traffic was moving. And then, for no discernible reason, the traffic came to a dead halt. I sat, and sat, and sat in my vehicle, turning the engine on and off to defrost the windshield as I searched for news on the radio. Cars in front and behind me also sat there waiting. Occasionally a vehicle would pull out of line and turn around, heading where? Eventually I got out of my SUV and talked to the couple in the car behind me, who had had an opportunity to talk with a passing policeman. The policeman said the road was closed and the wait for it to open might be as long as 10 hours or even longer.
My flight to Houston was on Monday afternoon, so I decided that waiting was just the best thing to do. In the end, a drive that had taken a little over two hours going up the mountain took more than 14 hours to get down. And the irony of course was that I had not departed on Friday evening in large part because I did not want to drive down a treacherous road at night, but in the end that is just what I had to do. Between the long, long wait while the road was closed, and the subsequent creeping down the mountain road at five or 10 mph, I didn’t check into my motel until 12:30 AM on Monday morning.
The Sacramento Airport on Monday afternoon was a changed place. While I had been isolated in the mountains for three days, attitudes about coronavirus had clearly changed. The airport was almost deserted. No one was in the security line. It was so pleasurable to whiz my way through the checkpoints and onto the plane. “This,” I thought, “is what travel must have felt like in the past. Just a select few flying.”
At the time I wrote the “March Madness” column for my website, I was feeling ill, but I had no idea how sick I actually was. I first felt ill on March 17th, my first day back home after the Gathering. I thought I had a head cold, but it turned out to be much, much worse. It is only this past week, a month after falling ill, that I have felt well enough to return to my computer and work.
In this posting, I have recounted the ambience of the Gathering—the situation with coronavirus hovering and snow falling. In my next post, I plan to give readers more about the substance of the Gathering.