I nestled myself into bed, head sinking into the pillow. I turned onto my side, reached for a second pillow, and stuffed it between my knees. Then, I grabbed a third pillow to wrap my arms around. Perfectly comfortable, I closed my eyes and a little old lady’s voice came into my head. “Travel when you’re young. And when you have no money. Because you can sleep anywhere and not feel it the next morning.”
Those words fueled my travels for many years. I first heard them when I was eighteen years old, standing in the Reception Hall at the Vanderbilt Mansion National Historic Site. Bedecked in my Park Ranger uniform, it was my job to greet visitors entering the home. After checking their tickets, I then told them all the things they couldn’t do: chew gum, take flash pictures, touch anything. When there was a lull at the front door, I’d eavesdrop on people’s conversations. If they said, “I wonder who that is?” while looking at the bust in the foyer, I’d pipe in, “We think that’s Zeus – but we don’t know for sure because there’s no documentation about it.” Most of the time that’s all it took for visitors to realize I wasn’t there solely to enforce the rules. I actually knew about this place and could tell them some pretty interesting stuff.
Bus groups were my favorite. First, because I loved when it was busy. And in my first season as a Park Ranger, we could have as many as five buses of tourists some days. Secondly, bus groups were mostly senior citizens and I love those folks. They’re usually funny and wise, and I got equal parts of laughter and wisdom in my conversations with them. I didn’t realize it then, but now I know why I like working with them so much: we have the same outlook on life. Do what you want now, because you’re not getting any younger.
I remember that little white-haired lady, name tag around her neck, dispensing her advice shortly into our conversation. She lamented that she wasn’t walking so well today and blamed it on not being in her own bed the night before. The crux of her advice was that, as a young person with little money, I could afford to stay in cheap places with crappy beds – and wouldn’t have to pay for it with aches the next day. I remember telling my boyfriend (a Park Ranger on duty with me that day) what she said. I remember we took her words to heart that summer. Though that relationship didn’t last, her words stuck around.
As I recalled her advice snuggled into my bed last night, I laughed to myself thinking, “You know, Rebecca, you’re not going to have three pillows to sleep with on the Camino…” Though then I thought, “Maybe I can bring a couple – pillows are light.” I did just pull out my backpack yesterday and wonder what I would fill all that space with.