At the Bend of the Road

Photo by Aube Rey Lescure.

MISSING: Have you seen this pilgrim?

The flyers are pasted to dusty window panes in roadside cafés, stapled to skinny utility poles along fields, pinned on the overloaded cork boards of pilgrim hostels. It is July, 2015. Three months ago, along the Camino de Santiago, a Christian pilgrimage trail through Spain, France, Italy, and Portugal that is increasingly popular with secular walkers and international travelers, a woman disappeared. Her name is Denise Thiem. She is a forty-one-year-old Asian American woman from Arizona. In the picture on the flyer, her face is framed by jet-black hair. She sticks out her tongue as she rests on a stone bench, a turquoise backpack nestled at her feet like a patient dog, waiting to get up and go.

Nine hundred kilometers of road, a horizontal line drawn across the Iberian peninsula, is a long way to walk. In the desert-like mezeta, the stretch between Burgos and Léon seems to consist of nothing but interminable wheat fields, there is little for eyes to rest on but the wavelets of heat distorting the horizon, the occasional utility pole, the flyers. I look away from the missing woman. No, I have not seen her, and my first instinct is to unsee her. Instead, I listen to the winds rustling through the wheat, like waves rippling an inland sea. This flyer cannot, must not, intrude on this landscape, of golden grass rising to the skyline, abandoned mud houses with shattered windows. Before I saw the flyer, the mezeta had the parched romanticism of an old Western movie set. Now it begins to thrum with something sinister.

I put the flyer out of my head and pick up my pace, heading toward a village where blocky red buildings line the main street, where the cheap metal chairs left out in the sun will sear red marks into my thighs. I unbuckle my backpack, its blue fabric soaked through with sweat, and order a calamari sandwich, defrosted squid rings on a baguette slathered with mayo. I check my phone’s battery. Then I hoist my backpack onto my aching shoulders again, and pause to watch a herd of goats being shaved on the outskirts of town. The animals writhe and groan weakly among mounds of wool, disconcerted, but not altogether disturbed. The other goats just watch, waiting their turn.

I imagine innocent explanations for Denise’s disappearance. Perhaps she’s gotten lost, or had a spiritual epiphany that dictated she should unplug, fall off the map. Perhaps she just wanted some time to herself. I myself am a loner pilgrim, and proud of it. I don’t stop at churches for communal masses, or start the day’s trek with a pack of new friends, like many others do. Being a pilgrim, to me, has come to mean a one-on-one relationship with the road, a private contemplation of its beauty and its difficulty. I walk in solitude. Later in the day, I may drink a cold beer with other pilgrims, trading news of albergues with plentiful cots, but every morning I set off on my own. I can stop for a tortilla or a coffee whenever I like, speed down a hill as fast as I want, call an end to the day at whatever medieval village I choose, dress my feet wounds however I please. One afternoon, sitting on some concrete steps, I rip out an entire toenail that had blackened and begun to smell foul, like something that had died in its bed. No one bears witness. I can handle it all, all on my own. But every time I see Denise on the flyers, I feel something pierce the carapace of perfect solitude. Something that makes me turn and look over my shoulder. Something like fear.

* * *

In the book I am listening to while walking, women are being killed.

I’d heard that Roberto Bolaño’s 2666 was difficult to stomach, but downloaded the book because of its sheer length—thirty-nine hours. Enough to fill a few days of walking. I love Bolaño, and had looked forward to letting his hefty tome slowly dissolve into my brain, accompanying me as the relentless sun beat down on scorched fields, saving me from stretches of boredom.

Set mostly in the town of Santa Teresa in the Sonoran desert, a thinly fictionalized version of Ciudad Juárez, 2666 contains an infamous section detailing the murders of women, hundreds of pages that read like a Mad Lib of police records. The victims are factory workers, waitresses, prostitutes, schoolgirls, neighbors. “In this city they killed little girls,” a television psychic cries at one point. Bodies keep being found. Bolaño lists the facts of each crime clinically, unflinchingly, leaving the reader a mix of desensitized and dazed. I listen to this as I walk along highways sprawling out of cities, along rural paths coiled around patchworks of fields. The women whose horrid deaths bloom in myriad ways against my eardrums feel far from these country trails and pastel dawns, yet sharpen my sense that I am alone, vulnerable, exposed.

* * *

The guidebooks, most of which are written by men, do not mention the way some older pilgrims’ hands like to brush up against young women’s buttocks, how they might come too close to your bunk bed with their Tempranillo-soaked breath. I wake one morning to the chatter of two nervous women pilgrims, who discuss whether they might take the bus through an area where men parked in white vans had reportedly harassed pilgrims. I plug in 2666 and start the day’s walk. As I listen to the litany of crimes afflicting the Sonoran desert, I dig a nail into one of my bedbug bites, to ease the nagging tickle under my skin.

When I enter Astorga, the city where Denise Thiem was last seen, the sky is overcast, and every gray stone paving the ancient city is heavy with menace. Flyers of Denise are everywhere here, pleading, inescapable. I lie in my pilgrim hostel cot, pinned down by anxiety like granite. I no longer think of innocent explanations for how Denise could have gone missing, where she might be. The next day I would wake and set out on the path she walked the day she disappeared. The same yellow arrows pointing down a country road, the spiky shrubbery, the rocky hills. At which bend of the road had things gone wrong?

I do something I’d never done on the Camino: I ask Nan, an Argentinian woman who I’d seen on the path many times and who is also walking alone, if we can walk the next stretch together. She replies: Of course. We meander out of Astorga and she tells me about her beach shack on the Argentine coast. She gives me a pack of Argentinian Marlboros that I’ll keep and smoke for years, long after they’ve gone stale, whenever I need to steel myself. That night, we reach our destination without incident. The next day, I start walking alone again. I’ll see Nan in other hostels, wave to her when I pass her at a bocadillo stand, miss the diversion of her companionship — but I can’t lose the freedom of choosing my own rhythm, of feeling unrestrained by anyone else’s footsteps.

A few months later, in a farmhouse not far from the path Nan and I walked, Denise’s remains are found. She’d been lured in by a farmer, then murdered. One gruesome detail stands out from the news reports: her hands had been dismembered and separated from her body, and were never found. I wonder if Denise had still been alive that day Nan and I passed by. That day with Nan, I’d walked with my chest constricted by more than my backpack straps, thinking of Denise, breathless from the tightness in my lungs. In that moment, she felt close, so close that I could have been her: both of us Asian American women with jet-black hair and turquoise backpacks. From a distance behind, on the trail, we must have looked indistinguishable.

* * *

In 2666, a male detective and a female asylum director go on a date and discuss phobias. He sips a beer, she whiskey. Gynophobia, fear of women, afflicts men and is extremely widespread, the director remarks. “It can’t be that bad,” the detective protests. Then there’s optophobia, the director says, which is fear of opening the eyes, and, “in a figurative sense, that’s an answer to what you just said about gynophobia.” She goes on: “But the worst phobias, in my opinion, are pantophobia, which is fear of everything, and phobophobia, fear of fear itself. If you had to suffer from one of the two, which would you choose?”

The fear of fear itself, the detective answers.

“Think carefully,” the director cautions. “If you’re afraid of your own fears, you are forced to live in constant contemplation of them.”

* * *

After that summer of walking, I find that what I most yearn for is not the serene fields, but the pain. The soreness that settles in after the hamstrings have been stretched to their limit, the tenderness of the foot’s worn-out sole against the gravel’s dull probe, the screaming knee, the blood-filled abscess deep under meaty callouses. Early on during that Camino, before I threw out the ill-fitting hiking boots that congealed my socks with pus and blood, I’d met a Norwegian oil executive who was suffering from a poison ivy-induced leg rash. “I have Aspirin 1000 in my backpack,” he whispered theatrically as we limped along side by side. We paused beside the path and each popped a thousand milligram tablet into our mouths, and the next hour was like flying, all pains and aches gone. But we were sheepish: the pilgrimage is, after all, supposed to be about withstanding pain, a blisterous, grueling journey toward the remains of a martyred saint. In the end, I tapered off the painkillers. The pilgrimage had transformed my relationship with pain, taught me to walk with it and through it. Perhaps, I thought, it could teach me the same thing about fear.

When I thought of Denise, I told myself, This is paranoia. She was one woman out of the tens of thousands who make the trek and safely reach the Santiago cathedral every year. Maybe, to prove my fear a folly, I should walk the pilgrimage again. It was just like how I believed the answer to a fear of flying was to get on more planes. I turn to the odds for comfort: I repeat to myself that plane crashes are exceedingly rare, I check crime statistics in my neighborhood, I determine that the chances of being mugged between the subway exit and my front door are equivalent to being struck by lightning. And there is a simple anesthetic for paranoid fear: not being alone. Every child knows that the monster under the bed never comes out when someone else is in the room.

* * *

The next year, I enlist my then-boyfriend to accompany me on another Camino, through the Basque Country’s turquoise coves and pine forests, through the pastures of Cantabria and the rugged mountains of Asturias and into the Celtic gloom of Galicia. I never once worry: he is by my side and gregarious, and we always catch up to friends we’ve met along the way and drink one-euro glasses of Verdejo together in ancient plazas. When we see the occasional lone female pilgrim, a weighted silhouette in the fields beyond, I feel a pinch. That utterly solitary, utterly vulnerable, utterly free woman was once me.

Then, four years later, during the pandemic summer, I fly on a one-way ticket to Europe to see my family. I have made plans with a dear friend, B, who lives in the UK, to meet in Lisbon and walk the Portuguese route of the Camino together, this time cutting through the Iberian peninsula vertically. I’d asked B to join me because we were both on the cusp of big life changes, had left our long-term relationships and packed up the rental apartments we last called home. She is a hiker too, and has always been interested in a pilgrimage.

Two is good. Two is safer. Still, I have nightmares about Denise, about empty fields and men lurking in bushes. I am consumed by thoughts of remote locales where, were anything to happen, there would be no witnesses. I share my worries with B over phone calls. She says we could carry pepper spray if it would make me feel better. I acquiesce half-heartedly, embarrassed. When had I become such a fearful person? Where is the girl who walked across Spain alone in her Teva sandals, who stopped for Cola-cao chocolate milk at cafes along the way, who watched the sun rise over hills dotted with olive groves in perfect, magnetic solitude?

In Lisbon, I turn twenty-seven alone. Before B flies in to join me, I rent a small apartment overlooking the Rossio train station. In the mornings, I watch the doors of the station disgorge commuters who diffuse into the streets and up the steep staircases. Perched on the threshold of a new journey, I feel excited, but still anxious. Late at night, after picking up takeout of grilled octopus and eating the tentacle alone in my apartment while watching yet another MTV rerun, the clinks and chatter of the café on the little plaza below drift in my balcony’s open doors. In previous years, these sounds would have beckoned me downstairs; I would have sat alone in the middle of it all, enveloped by the buzz and the smoke, content if no one talked to me, secretly pleased if someone did. But now I stay inside and drink alone. I pull up Amazon on my laptop and type in “pepper spray.” I scroll through the options, my eyes drifting to the estimated delivery dates — it can arrive on time. But then I close the window. Every night I do this and the delivery window shrinks. My mouse hovers over “order,” but I can’t go through with it. I can’t envision actually carrying a weapon on my body, a physical testament to my fear that would weigh down every step.

Then B arrives, and there is no more time for Amazon deliveries. I thought I might feel relief, but instead I find myself on WikiHow: “How to Make Pepper Spray.” I eye the piri-piri hot sauce on my counter. No, that would be ridiculous. B and I eat at a little restaurant up a cobblestone street not far from the apartment. Before going to sleep, I ask B with feigned casualness whether she happens to have brought any weapons. B has always been so maternal, so well-prepared. “No,” she says, “but I have this Swiss Army knife.” It is the same small red tool she had used to cut up apple slices in our dorm when we were sixteen. “Okay,” I say, laughing uneasily, embarrassed again. “That will do.” That will do, I tell myself.

* * *

In 2666, a university professor with a seventeen-year-old daughter calls a colleague to confess he is a nervous wreck. His daughter likes to go out to the movies, he explains. “Don’t worry so much,” his colleague says. “All you have to do is be careful; there is no point giving in to paranoia.”

I remember what my mother told me when I was a little girl: don’t show your fear, because those who can smell it will come for you.

* * *

The next morning, B and I strap on our backpacks. We take a picture in the mirror of the apartment before we set out: we are radiant.

We have planned a long walking day of thirty-five kilometers, ending at a horse farm in Vila Franca de Xira. We retrieve our credentials from the Sé Cathedral, and begin walking out of Lisbon, following the yellow arrows that define the Camino. We are giddy with freedom; our backpacks are heavy, but that’s all we have to carry. Our life possessions are locked away on other continents: hers in a storage locker, mine in a friend’s basement. We buy bread, cheese, and chouriço at a supermarket and eat in the shadows of an elevated highway. B cuts fat slices of chouriço with her Swiss Army knife and hands them to me, red oil dripping into the soil beneath us.

The fields we walk along are sometimes flanked by low bamboo bushes strewn with trash and toilet paper. In the late afternoon, B walks ahead to take a phone call. She is only a short distance ahead of me, but I momentarily lose sight of her as she walks across a little wooden bridge.

Right as I am about to cross the bridge, a man emerges from the bamboo bushes. He is wearing a blue face mask. I pass him quickly, darting around the bend. B is sitting on a stone platform behind the tall green stalks, still on the phone with her friend. “There’s a man behind us,” I tell her. He is right there, coming around the bend, and we stand aside so he can pass us. The plane never actually crashes, I tell myself. The monster isn’t under the bed. He will walk past us.

But the man heads straight for me. He locks me in a chokehold, his arm hot and tight around my neck. My brain registers this with a mix of disbelief and finality, and the first thought that crosses my mind is: “It’s come.”

He shows us a small black knife with a pointy double-edged blade, a stabbing knife, which he brings to my neck. He does not ask for money, but barks at B: “Get down on the ground!” His English is mangled. When B fails to comply, he repeats the command. “No,” I say, and he tells me to shut up. He starts dragging me off the path and toward the bushes. This is when I know: I’d rather fight and die than let it happen. I scream at the top of my lungs, then bite into the flesh of his arm.

He tries to force me down to the ground. I stumble to my knees. My backpack is incredibly heavy. I wrestled in high school, and muscle memory returns: no matter what, just don’t get pinned. Several times, I succeed in half-getting up, just for him to push me down again. I feel hopeless. I keep screaming.

Then B is by my side, holding the little Swiss Army knife, coming at the man. I rear up again. The chokehold loosens and the man takes a step backwards and B screams for me to run. I stumble away. The attacker is still standing across from B, but something has shifted, he is backing away. Then B starts running toward me, yelling that she is hurt, and that is when I register the blood on her hand and legs. She lifts her wrist, which is leaking blood and has duct tape around it. The attacker stabbed her, and then, bewilderingly, panicked at the gushing blood, put duct tape on her wound, and told her to run.

Further along the road, we wave to two passing cars for help, but they do not stop for us. There is a repair garage nearby, and its workers help us call the police and an ambulance while B administers first aid to her wound: the incision missed her main artery by millimeters. The policeman takes a few cursory notes, then asks for B’s passport and where we are staying that night. We never hear from him again.

At the hospital, hours later, B’s wrist wound is sutured. After the surgical procedure, the medics have told us, they can do nothing more to help. We are on our own. No more police, ambulances, authorities. What had happened had happened, and this is it. We call a taxi to take us from the hospital to the horse farm.

The owners of the horse farm learn about our situation from the taxi driver in a gesture-heavy game of telephone. They are sympathetic. They show us the majestic stallions they keep on the ranch, and their many dogs—Portuguese guard dogs and a rag-tag crew of old labradors and rescue mutts. “There’s no use going to the police,” the husband says. “In this country there is an epidemic of domestic violence, of killings of women, and the police don’t care unless the women are dead. But don’t worry. Here, you are safe.”

* * *

The detectives of 2666 set out to resolve the crimes. In between they drink mezcal and eat greasy breakfasts and tell interminable sexist jokes: Women are like laws; they were made to be broken. At one point, a policeman who killed his girlfriend is arrested in the middle of a poker match; as soon as he is wheeled away, the card game resumes.

A young recruit called Lalo Cura observes the corruption and ineptitude of the authorities. When Lalo Cura takes out a tape measure at a crime scene, his colleagues scoff. They think he is crazy to even bother. After all, La Locura means madness.

* * *

The next day is gloomy and rainy, and we walk to the town supermarket for food. I notice every man watching us. Movement on the street, glimpsed in my peripheral vision, triggers fight-or-flight responses that flood my body with adrenaline. We still have the attacker’s backpack strap, which I’d ripped off during the struggle, and the bloodied duct tape. That night, we talk to our hosts about contacting the police. The husband insists it is useless. The wife is also pessimistic, but says she understands why it is important to us, and that it is important for her, as well.

We drive to the station at 8:30 p.m., and our hosts talk to a policeman standing guard. When he hears the description of the attacker, he tells our host that a school girl was attacked just a few hours earlier by a man fitting a similar description. He says it is important we come in and give our account, but adds: “The policemen are eating dinner. You understand—dinner shouldn’t be interrupted at the end of a workday. Come back at 10 p.m.”

We go to a small familial restaurant across the street to wait, where the husband chain-smokes and eats a plate of meat pounded thin and swimming in oil. I eat nothing. At 10 p.m., we return to the station and spend another hour in the waiting area, watching the chief sit idly in his glass office. Finally he waves us in. He types out our passport information, fathers’ names, mothers’ names, and addresses for the record. Only B has been stabbed, he says, so I can count as a witness, but not a victim. In the end, we take a picture of the police report. It is careless and full of inaccuracies. When we offer the strap and the duct tape, the chief laughs and waves them away.

At the ranch that night, an enormous Portuguese dog stands guard outside our door, and when I come out to the cement yard under the inky sky, he leans his heavy head against my leg. The horses, their pelts shining and their majestic muscles twitching, strain their necks outside the stable, and I caress their warm muzzles. It feels like those animals are all that keep me tethered to the ground.

* * *

It is impossible, of course, to keep walking. The next day we leave Vila Franca for Lisbon. We are two anonymous girls with heavy backpacks on a train, and what happened to us is a pebble thrown into an ocean, quickly engulfed and irrelevant. In our Airbnb, B retreats to her room and I go into overdrive, posting on a prominent pilgrim forum about our experience, searching for clues about past attacks. I find one, then two, then three. Buried threads where women pilgrims talk about that very same stretch of the route, the first day out of Lisbon. One woman was beaten and robbed. Another sexually assaulted at knifepoint. Another raped and tortured and left to die. The last woman sees my posting and offers to connect. She is a Dutch woman named Yolan. She’d been attacked right by the elevated highway where we had eaten our lunch. On the phone, she tells me and B about what she’d survived. She says she still feels the pain of her wounds, as they’d permanently damaged internal organs. She says that the Portuguese government still owes her the meager reparations the court had ordered.

These were only the stories of the ones who posted, who were written about in the local tabloids, who lived to tell the tale. The real number of victims must be much higher, a nightmare out of 2666. But for future women who will walk this path alone, there is no warning, no awareness of the danger of this stretch, no database, no collective mechanism for action. It took being attacked and surviving to know what to dig for.

* * *

In 2666, the medical examiners are kept busy — some of the women’s corpses bear similar marks, possibly indicating a single culprit. Some victims are seen getting into the same black Peregrino car before they disappear. Bolaño sprinkles in red herrings, suggesting an emergent puzzle to solve. But when one purported serial killer is locked up, and women keep dying, the patterns start to seem besides the point.

Yolan and I compare notes on our attackers: they are not the same man.

* * *

B and I stay in Lisbon for one more week. When we aren’t dealing with bureaucracy, we take our bodies to markets and restaurants. We stare at the plates of grilled seafood in front of us, at the narrow lanes and string lights, and think: is it possible to feel okay? We take walks to a park perched high on a hill, Jardim da Estrela, with its regal Banyan trees and shady gardens. One day a figure runs toward us on a semi-secluded path, a dark arrow, and B and I both freeze with white-hot fear, the blood drained from our faces, ready to fight. The figure zooms by. He’s just a young boy running, chasing his friends, playing.

* * *

Our bodies eat our wounds. B’s gash becomes a thin white scar along her wrist. My light bruising fades quickly. The more lasting damage is a persistent, low-level paranoia. I am most afraid, I think, not that this man will reappear, but that from now on I will live in this state, forever slowed down and shut in.

Yolan didn’t stay shut in. She returned to the Camino years after her attack. To prove to myself I could walk again, she says. She sends us pictures of herself holding hiking poles, standing before dizzyingly verdant mountains.

Once more, I cannot hold the gaze of the woman in the pictures. I can’t walk the Camino again, I think. Not like that. I just can’t. I would keep myself safe by confining my body, by shoving my turquoise backpack under my bed, by forgetting solitary dawns on rural trails — by opting to stay inside altogether, even if it meant forgoing what made me feel most alive.

* * *

But it cannot last. Back in the UK, I fall first in love, then into a deep depression, and I lie horizontal in a rental apartment on London’s Brick Lane, leaking tears into pillows as another call to prayer rings from a mosque and dissipates into the gray clouds. The winter months roll by like fog. Sometimes I decide to get out of bed. Many times I fail. Some days I succeed.

I take tentative steps. I often think of Denise Thiem. I sometimes think of the man, the smell of his sweaty, warm skin against my neck. Some days he is everywhere. Some days he is nowhere, and I go a little further along the roads I wander down, but never too far.

Just a few months later, Sarah Everard is kidnapped and murdered on her way home, across the Thames from where I’d lived. Women circulate a screenshot: “Tell me when you get home safe.” An exhausting message: a woman walking is always in danger.

I listen to 2666 again. The women killed in the book — and in real life — came to the city to earn a living. They are women who take the bus and walk to work, who go out at night for a drink. They are venturing out, deciding where their bodies can be. And with movement comes risk — of exposure, of violence. A risk that, I finally understand, travels with me, and that I carry with every step. It is risk that, just like pain, I must coexist with.

That year, I walk 2,500 miles. Before and after the attack, on city streets, suburban trails. Far from the yellow arrows and shell signage of the Camino, my legs do what my brain cannot. Just like I carried my body months ago, it now carries me.

My steps today are heavier — I slow down more often, to survey my surroundings, to catch my breath. I cannot imagine catching up to the girl who once unhesitantly sped ahead to chase solitude, with her jet-black hair and a turquoise backpack, sandal soles worn thin by changing topography. But that’s the nature of pilgrimages: reaching a destination a thousand miles away is unimaginable. Still, I can see her, walking tall and alone, up where the road bends.