A road brimming with metaphor: A dogfight near a cheese farm

Jack Hitt’s book, Off the Road: A Modern-Day Walk Down the Pilgrim’s Route into Spain (1994) was the major inspiration for Martin Sheen’s film, The Way, about the pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela. Here’s a passage that made it into the film in much abbreviated form.

The repetition of the walk is interrupted only by a young, excitable pup, who explodes from a tangle of mountain laurel and joins the walk. She is a cute mutt and loves to walk at my feet. … She is all chaotic tail between my legs and a delight until I am brutally reminded that with a pack stiffening my back, I am as agile as a hod of bricks. …

Not far up this hill, fear and ignorance compel me into the driveway of a rural cheese farm. The drizzle has temporarily stopped. My leaping pup is with me. A cheese maker and his daughter approach, both of whom have happily squished their way out front in their yogurt-stomping boots. From behind their legs, a dog the size of a grizzly bear gallops out. His eyes are blazing straight for my puppy. The farmer yells out in French, something along the lines of “actually very friendly, loves children.”

I drop my pack and begin the stutter step of a guard blocking for his quarterback. The bear blows me aside like a bug and dives into the yin-yang tumble of a dogfight. The cheese maker’s dog sinks his teeth into the hip of my pup. And again–crunch–into her neck. From the blur of confusion, I can see my little dog, her eyes wide with fear and, so it seems to me, betrayal. Seconds later the victor saunters off, wagging his butt with a bully’s confidence. In the distance the cheese maker waves and says something to the effect of “wouldn’t hurt a flea, bark worse than his bit.” My pup bolts into nearby woods. I call after her. My whistles are carried off by a slight, humid breeze.

I envision a shady oak beneath which the little pup finally drops, licking her wounds, cursing her stupidity for leaving her territory, until death overtakes her. But just who is outside his territory if not me? Only a few hours into the pilgrimage, here is another fabulous incident brimming with significance. I reach for my notebook.

This is the problem with the road. Despite its literalness, the idea of the pilgrims journey is a metaphor bonanza. Everything that happens on the road seems to translate itself instantaneously from what it is to what it means. I get lost! Yellow arrows! Fleeing dogs! Metaphor? Friend, I’m slogging through it. The road itself is the West’s most worn-out palimpsest and among our oldest tropes. The obvious metaphors click by. The high road and the low, the long and winding, lonesome, royal, open, private, the road to hell, tobacco, crooked, straight and narrow. There is the road stretching into infinity, bordered by lacy mists, favored by sentimental poets. There is the more dignified road of Mr. Frost. There is, every four years, the road to the White House. There is the right road. And then there is the road that concerns me most today, the wrong road.

This wealth of cliché was one of my motivations as well. The world I left behind is obsessed with new metaphors, new ideas, new vocabularies. I wanted to traipse through one of the oldest junkyards of Western metaphor.

Then again, maybe I should calm down. Instead of trying to tickle meanings out of every curve (it’s only noon of my first [true] day), maybe I should adopt a more conservative attitude. Maybe a dogfight near a cheese farm should remain a dogfight near a cheese farm. So I close my notebook and head up the hill in the direction the cheese maker sends me.