May 31 2012

Camino Interruptus

I heard the sound of a car horn, honking at a random rhythm. Then I saw two heads sticking up above the windshield, and two sets of arms waving wildly as the little car sped down the country road. De-facto, it turns out, had rented a convertible to drive to Spain, and permitted the girls to unbuckle and stand for the last 100 meters in order to make a memorable arrival. It was cocktail hour on the terrace of my favorite casa rural, in one of my favorite places in the world, and many of my friends and family had already had glass in hand, kicking off the weekend celebration. It felt like the party had really started when Short-pants and Buddy-roo paraded in, and the enthusiasm that powered them from the car to my arms was loud and heartfelt.

I’d been kidnapped the day before, estuve secuestrada, by the Fiesta Nazi and two other friends, a.k.a. the pit crew. They’d reserved a triple in the same hotel as I had a single, we giggled through dinner and the next morning I hit the road for another day’s walk and they stayed on to visit the chicken church and other touristy things while I marched 23k to the next town, Belorado, from where they fetched me and brought me backwards to Navarra to the small village of Urdax where, remarkably to me most of all, I’d managed during the last few months to organize a big birthday bash that would last the whole weekend, with friends and family who willingly made their way to the north of Spain to celebrate with me.

In retrospect, this kidnapping was a smart strategy. Had I made my way back to the birthday gathering all alone, I might have been stunned by the sudden shock of so much company all at once. Easing back into a social scene with the pit crew made for a transition – with a crescendoing dose of hilarity – that was a manageable first step. Even so, when all my guests started to assemble, I was a bit shell shocked.

I did very little to organize the weekend, except for the Saturday night festivities – cocktails, dinner, DJ – but the weekend filled up fast. Groups formed organically, for hiking, shopping and wine tasting. People roamed and mingled, chatted and napped, rested up for the dining and dancing that appeared to please everyone but surely I was the most delighted. There was a moment, last winter, when I was so overloaded with work assignments and responsibilities that the idea of walking the Camino and also throwing a birthday bash seemed doomed to be only that, a good idea. Some force beyond me prompted me to start planning it anyway, and once the wheels were in motion it fell into place. The party raged. I stumbled into bed just before sunrise – not bad for a fifty-year-old bat – and prouder still that I rallied the next day to hike 9k with a gang of friends.

Not just the gang. In honor of this Camino birthday theme, the whole family hiked. That is to say De-facto insisted, without resistance from me, that the girls come with us on the group hike. Buddy-roo was game, and ended up walking in the front of the pack with the other 15 or 16 members of our hiking party, no doubt chatting the whole way. Short-pants was not so interested in this exercise, protesting that she wanted to stay in her room at the B&B and do homework and read. This is her comfort zone, she loves to write and work and getting her to do physical activity isn’t so easy. De-facto gets her on the basketball court on Sundays, inspires her to do pull ups on the bar in our hallway and gets an occasional sun salute out of her, but she is rather bookish. As she put it, “hiking is not my thing.”

We insisted. She made her Munch face and cried. She crossed her arms and pushed her lower lip out to a pout. But when she saw no other option, she put her shoes on and came along. Wordless at the beginning, we gave her space to seethe. Soon, she softened, still sad but no longer glaring at us. Conversations meandered, as did the pack of hikers, morphing into different clumps and pairs as the trail curved up and around. When Short-pants was tired, we stopped to rest. When she moaned that it was too hot, we plied her with water. When her feet hurt, we stopped and had raisins. When she wanted to turn back, we reminded her that it was a loop and we’d already gone halfway.

And then at one point, not long after the halfway point, she turned to me and smiled. “I’m actually enjoying this,” she said. “Now I know why you’re walking the Camino.”

It’s the thing you think you can’t do, that when you do it, makes you feel bigger inside. She was so proud of herself, at the end, when she’d done the whole hike. It made me even prouder of her. And I knew how she felt.

~ ~ ~

On Monday, after a weekend-long birthday fiesta, I hoisted my pack on my back and walked from our hotel to a little bridge where a yellow arrow points left (antes del puente, a la izquierda) and puts you on a Camino Baztan, a trail that goes from Bayonne to Pamplona where it joins the Camino Frances. Eventually a bus would be necessary to get me back to Belorado where I’d left off, but the joy of leaving that beautiful weekend on foot appealed to me.
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De-facto and the girls and a few other lingering friends saw me off, though the girls didn’t wave as wildly as when they arrived. A college friend who’d flown all the way from New York to attend the party, walked with me for the first hour or so before turning back to make her departure and leaving me alone, once again, on the yellow-arrowed trail.

This part of the Camino is the road much less traveled, I didn’t pass another pilgrim all day. I loved that there was nobody around, that I could sing and talk to myself out loud as I trampled through the green fields and forests, marveling at the beauty of Navarra, which is lusher and hillier than the part of the Camino I’d hiked last week and would soon return to. Then I heard the familiar sound of a sharp, high-pitched dog bark, executed on an inhale rather than an exhale, the signature call of the Fiesta Nazi. Sitting in the grass, waiting for me to pass – the car was parked ahead out of sight – two of my pit crew pals waited for me with a warm tortilla sandwich and a cool bottle of water. Stalking me one last time, they saved the day, as it was Pentecost Monday, and all of the cafes in the villages I walked through were shut and locked.

The next day, a bus from Elizondo to Pamplona and another bus that stopped in all the towns I’ve slept in on the Camino: Puente la Reina, Estella, Los Arcos, Logroño, Nájera, Santo Domingo de la Calzada and Belorado, a redux of my walk so far. If you added a deep voice it could be like the opening credits of an HBO serial program, “Previously, on my Camino…” I saw bridges I’d crossed, roads I walked beside, a bar with wi-fi where I checked email, a clump of trees where I peed one day. It was a perfect way to return to the Camino.

Starting in again, I passed many strangers on the path, people who’ve been walking as long as I have but started later. It’s like you’re in a class of pilgrims, matriculating from town to town together, until you stop for a day, or five, and join a different class. This is my third time joining the Camino. All the familiar faces I came to know are ahead of me now. My shy side comes out each time, and it makes me think of the friends who came to my party knowing only me or my family, but who took the risk and put themselves out and ended up fitting in just fine with the rest of gang assembled. There’s a hesitation, a fear that is unfounded but nonetheless present, a social risk zone. I was grateful for the presence of these friends at my party, which informs me how the Camino might be grateful for mine if I’d just put myself out.

~ ~ ~

The terrain is new again: Where do I go? Will there be shade? Is there a fountain ahead or should I refill now? Will my feet be okay? When should I eat? Where should I sleep? The social aspect of the terrain is new, too. Who are these people and why are they walking? Will they be as friendly as the last set of pilgrim friends, and the set before? I’ve come to value the balance of being alone on the Camino, relishing it, and also appreciating the camaraderie with the others in this path, nursing their own feet and mulling over their own questions. The shared experience with fellow pilgrims is just as inspiring as the time alone to reflect.

I’m glad to be walking again. I spent the first day just getting into the rhythm with my legs, listening to the crunch of my boots on the stones of the path, the sound of my scallop shell slapping against my pack with each step. I’d exchange a simple, “Buen Camino!” with other pilgrims, but avoided any real conversations, wanting to get back in sync with myself. But when I came upon a Romanian woman wearing a broad and constant smile, it felt right to walk and talk together for a while. We started with the standard prelude: Where did you start the Camino? Where did you start off today? Until where will you go?

And then I asked her, “Are you walking alone?”

“No,” she said, seeming very content. “I’m walking with myself.”

Yeah, I thought, me too.


May 25 2012

Walking into Fifty

The Camino rises and falls from the hills of Navarra into Rioja, and my mood follows suit. The swing from elation or the simplest contentment – Camino bliss – to feelings of regret or frustration is a pendulum wide. What is it about me that thinks my Camino has to be perfect? I do this in the rest of my life, too, set up these grand expectations and then kick myself along the way for not doing it well enough, whatever it is. I forget that as a rule, things in my life are pretty damn good. Good enough, and then some.
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I arrived at the edge of a small town – it was Los Arcos – after walking 20k in the steady rain, steady when it wasn’t torrential, which it was on a few different occasions during the day. I was drenched, even with good rain gear, but not yet tired. I debated whether to keep going to Torres del Rio, about 7k further. As I came into the center of town, another downpour drowned out all thoughts of continuing. I’d reserved a sweet single room, it had a shared bathroom, but that’s why it was only 20€, this was a good deal not to be passed up and besides, even if I wasn’t weary, I was wet.

The room was the size of a postage stamp, with a narrow chastity bed like I had in my college dorm. Its best feature was a brand-spanking new space heater, over which I could drape my wet clothes for quick drying. After a hot shower, I sat on the bed and thought, what am I doing here? I should have kept walking. I didn’t feel like writing, reading or napping. I was restless, even angry at myself for stopping. It descended upon me, that sort of funk, the four walls of the already too tiny room closing in on me. So I did what any pilgrim who’s logged 20k during a day does, went out to walk some more, around the town.

A church bell rang, so I followed the sound to the main square. I pressed the door tentatively, not knowing if it was open or not – many are only open in the evenings for mass – and it swung inward and allowed me to enter. The first thing in view as you enter the church, its elaborate organ, the pipes painted blue and gold. My mouth gaped at the sight of it. In another church, on another day, I heard the organ being tuned. I wondered if this one sounded as rich as it looked. I walked to my customary place, 1/3 of the way back from the altar, to the left, and took a seat.

And then, tears. For no particular reason. Maybe for every reason. Tears for all those people gone, but not forgotten. Tears for all my disappointments, and for the people I’ve disappointed. Tears for the things I didn’t become, and for the things that don’t become me. Tears for being alone. Even though I mean to be alone, I like to be alone, these are tears that remind me, despite all the good company on the Camino, and in my life, I am alone – we are all alone with ourselves.

It’s been ages since I cried like that, with the floodgates wide open. It made me feel so much better.

Maybe all I needed was a good cry.

~ ~ ~

After all that contemplative crap, I needed a beer. There was a bar across the square from the church. The cast of characters inside a gang of pilgrims, people I recognized from walking, but hadn’t yet talked with and wasn’t sure if I wanted to. Heavy rock music was blaring, boisterous men strained to talk over it, mostly about themselves. I regretted the decision to stop there, but I’d already ordered. I read the blackboard beside the bar, advertising a pilgrim menu for 12€. I debated whether to stay for it or not. The rain outside made the decision for me.

A rope across the doorway leading to the cave of the bar was unhooked, and the assembled pilgrims filed down the narrow staircase one by one to the dining room. I took a seat at a random table and was joined by five others. Miraculously, the boisterous men opted out of the pilgrim meal service, or sat elsewhere. My table was a mix of nationalities, two lovely German women who would become important touchstones for me over the next days, a gentle Australian who’d walked the Mekong, two other German men, one of whom was an 81-year-old retired ship captain celebrating his rebirthday. Nineteen years ago – to the day – he’d fallen in the ice-cold water between two boats, and it had taken fifteen minutes before either crew realized he was not on either ship. He’d been rescued, and he remains in a state of gratitude, even after all these years, for what he called his second life.
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We alternated between private conversations and full table storytelling, and the dinner was accompanied by good questions, thoughtful answers and general spirit of conviviality. The ship captain wanted to treat us all to an after dinner digestive, I suggested the local (we were still in Navarra) specialty, my favorite patxaran. Our round red glasses klinked together festively, overriding any of my earlier angst about stopping and staying here for the night.

~ ~ ~

Each day a different path with different views, different thoughts, different moods. Up and down and around into another dusty town, backpacks laid in a row next to a fountain where pilgrims rest their feet and fill their water bottles, village cafes brimming with friendly hikers. Over the next days I would run into those dinner companions and check in. How are you feeling? How are your feet? How is your Camino? I’d stop and chat for a while, but walk on alone, and let my mind wander – I prefer to walk by myself – although once I spent a good part of the day’s kilometers beside a thoughtful Irishman, swapping stories. It wasn’t so much that we were talking, more like we were thinking out loud with each other, reflecting on reflections otherwise interior. It was one of my nicest days walking the Camino.
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Except they’re all nice. In the rain, in the sun, the cool morning or the brutal late afternoon heat. Every day is good, even when it’s not so good. You get where you’re going, and the right things happen to you when you get there.

Yesterday, another church stop, a needed break from the midday sun. As I stepped inside I heard music – often there is some kind of classical or choral soundtrack piped in – but this one was slightly imperfect, like someone was practicing. In one of the pews, an open guitar case lay just beside a pilgrim’s pack, and in the back of the church, in the dark, someone strumming. I sat, where I always go to sit, and listened, as the guitarist played song after song and then he started to sing. Sometimes, when I knew the words, I sang along, in harmony with him.

Tears came again, fast now; I am tender these days. The walk, the time this walk has given me, puts my real person closer to the surface. She is touched more easily, her joy comes as instantly as her pain. But I have made this walk just for this, to access her. This time, I can report, the tears were glad ones: I was so fucking happy, in that perfect little moment, the one I didn’t orchestrate or expect.

~ ~ ~

Today I turn fifty. Such a bold number, and it came up on me like lightening. The two digits sit beside me, not quite smirking, grinning. I grin back. I started the Camino with a question, something like how might I make the most out of the rest of my life. Along the way, thoughts about how to make less of it, how to simplify, weed out the unnecessary, make room for the things that deserve to be made the most of. Coming now to another turn, wondering how to make nothing of it, and let it make itself. I’m not even halfway through the Camino, but just starting to open up to what it has to show me. But I am right where I’m supposed to be, and I think understanding that is perfectly good enough.


May 22 2012

Still Walking

Any journey starts long before you walk out the door with your suitcase – or backpack – in hand. So it may be hard to pinpoint exactly when my Camino started. Was it the moment I decided to walk it for my birthday? The first time I heard of it? When I first read about it? I remember that De-facto and I took a vacation in Spain and Portugal some years ago. Passing through Santiago, we parked the car and visited the enormous, opulent cathedral. We saw pilgrims, apparently finishing their walk, and I think I might have wondered how could they possibly make that journey. I’d never felt compelled to walk 800 km just to get to a church.

On that same trip, interesting to note, we ended up in the Basque city of Vitoria, where I witnessed my first Basque fiesta. A man sporting a metal bull costume – and it was spewing sparks – chased the children around the town square as they squealed with terrified delight, and I thought, isn’t that an odd ritual. Not even a year later I would meet the Fiesta Nazi and she would start chewing my ear off about another feria, in Pamplona, and soon something else I never thought of doing became something I do.

Also worth noting about that trip to Spain: while driving around, De-facto and I decided that we should start trying to have a child, as I was getting up in years and who knew how hard it would be or how long it would take to get pregnant. Short-pants was conceived within a month’s time.

~ ~ ~

Lately I’ve been trying to meditate. This was a regular part of my life, along with Yoga and Aikido, when I was in my late twenties. Of course we go through different phases and fascinations over the course of our lives, and the discipline I surprised myself with during those years slipped away in my thirties, and the time required for parenting hasn’t made it easy for me to take back those practices with any regularity, despite the fact that now more than ever they would do me good.

It was a David Lynch video that inspired me to try it once again, and ever so gently – no grand proclamations here – I am trying to set aside 15 or 20 minutes here and there each day to still my mind. I’m not very good at it; my mind chatters away. But I figure sitting still and breathing deeply for a few moments now and then certainly can’t hurt and is likely to be restorative in some fashion. This is easier to do in hotel rooms and airplanes, harder to accomplish with the hundred household tasks whispering at me while sitting in my living room, but I’ve managed to at least start a habit over the last month. On the Camino it’s a walking meditation most of the day, but nonetheless I take the time to sit still and deliberately meditate, thanks to all the churches along the way.

And aren’t there some Churches? Many so grand and gilded, I stand awestruck at the altar, impressed by the opulent beauty, disgusted by the power and wealth embedded in the bejeweled reredos. I see just as much beauty in plain, little village chapels, homey and welcoming, peaceful because of their simplicity. Like the one pictured here, empty and unused but for the crude stone altar plastered with handwritten notes and pictures and stones and private pleas from passing pilgrims.

Whether you are pious or politically opposed, there is one thing you cannot deny: when you are in a church, large or small, magnificent or modest, there is a thickness in the air, an invisible weight hanging, magnified by the silence or by the distinct echoes of prayerful footsteps on stone floors. Within the thick walls of an edifice that for centuries has been the repository for the prayers of believers, you can feel the faith that’s suspended there, even if you don’t share it. Like a thick velvet blanket it drapes around you, lowering upon your shoulders and pressing your awareness down, calm, and within. In a church, I can meditate in an instant.

~ ~ ~

In 2004, Oliver Schroer walked the Camino de Santiago, carrying his violin, making a musical pilgrimage. He recorded himself playing in 25 churches along the way. This very short film tells the story of his walk, and the music that came out of it.

A good friend of mine, who also happened to know Oliver, introduced me to his recording, Camino, several years ago. I heard only the opening bars of one song, and went immediately to iTunes to download it. It’s become classic Sunday morning music in my household, but useful also in the workshops I lead, when I want to create a mood that makes people stop and reflect on their experience. Each morning, while readying my pack, I hear this song in my mind and I’ll hum along out loud. Once, in one of those cool, darkened churches, I took out my earbuds and plugged them into my phone and listened to him bowing fiercely on his violin. Looking up at vaulted ceiling, I wondered if this was one the churches that hosted his beautiful music.

Sadly, Oliver Schroer died of a form of leukemia in 2008, a year before my mother was diagnosed with the the same disease. Wherever they’ve both ended up, I hope the music is as beautiful as what he created while he was here. And I hope my mother can hear it.

~ ~ ~

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When I go into a church, any church, I always move to the left side and up the aisle, taking a seat in a pew about 2/3 of the way toward the altar. This is where my father preferred to sit, at this 9:30 position within the congregation. It’s comforting to be there, at what has always felt like our place in church. I think of long sermons on summer mornings, the patch of blue sky visible out the side door of that church, beckoning, and my father beside me, ready with his crisp, ironed handkerchief the moment I succumbed to a pollen-induced sneezing attack.

I’m not especially religious, growing up in a multi-faith household where neither parent was pious. But my father appreciated the quiet and the lack of interruptions afforded during the church service, and told me this many times, as if he was giving me permission not to be devout, but rather encouraging me to be contemplative.

Which is harder and harder to do these days, in this world that commands us to rush and run about and measure our satisfaction and self-worth by the number of things we get done in any day, rather than by the clarity and quality of our thoughts and actions. On the Camino, I have the luxury of little to do, except to walk, and a lot to ponder. I like this pace. I want to keep this pace, to walk through life rather than speed through it. Apropos of this, it’s worth reading the transcript of a commencement speech given by Nipun Mehta – this link, incidentally, sent to me by a close friend of my parents, both of whom seem especially present with me at this moment on the Camino – advising the 2012 graduating class of the University of Pennsylvania, as they “walk on into a world that is increasingly aiming to move beyond the speed of thought…to remember the importance of traveling at the speed of thoughtfulness.”

When my Camino started, exactly, probably doesn’t matter as much as the fact that I’m on it now. That I started, that I left and returned, that I’m still at it. That every now and then I try to sit still and listen, for the quiet thoughts – or the lack of thoughts – and then, I lift my pack up on my back, look down the trail, content, under the heat of the sun or even in the pissing-down rain, to know this most basic of pleasures: I’m still walking.


May 18 2012

In Between

This, my in-between week, between tours on the Camino, I found myself immersed in the world of errands. While I was away walking, the constant churn of the rest of my life continued, and I was met, upon my return, with a few loose ends to tie up. Like taking Short-pants to the podiatrist to replace the shoe inserts that she left at the country house last month (she’s probably outgrown by now anyway) or passing by the Conservatory, in person, to make sure that the form for her re-inscription was correctly filled out, so that she won’t be refused readmission next year based on a technicality. A trip to the pharmacy to pick up a few goodies for my backpack, like an extra pack of second-skin bandages, miniature packets of moist towelettes, toothpaste in a teeny tube, and other tiny toiletry items compressed and compact, to lessen the space they take and the weight I’ll carry. At home, the paying of bills, the folding of money into envelopes designated for various helpers or babysitters, the catching-up of laundry, the arrangements that must be made so that our household will continue in my absence, without taxing De-facto, who does me the largest birthday favor ever by going solo for the time I need to walk the Camino.

Yet I felt I was moving at a slightly different pace. Gentler, more rhythmic, with a confidence that it will all get done, and that when I return to the Camino I will feel good, having taken care of the responsibilities I’ve tabled temporarily but never fully relinquish.

In this vein I remained buoyant, even stretching my erranding to such previously procrastinated tasks as addressing household appliances that have suffered our negligence too long. The supply of vacuum bags ran out weeks ago, requiring a repeated manual emptying of the last remaining bag in order to properly clean the carpets, and the bulb in the overhead light in the bathroom has been dark for even longer. This took me the dreaded BHV, the department store you love to hate and hate to love; you can buy just about anything you want there, from designer clothing to hammers and nails, but there are consequences. It’s an enormous store that seems to always be crowded and yet within the throngs of shoppers, you feel absolutely destitute in the search for that one item you’ve come to buy, lost in a sea of commercial choices without single guide to assist you.

This is where the team of green-vested salespeople should come in handy. They are numerous and poised around the store, usually in clumps talking to each other, though you’d wish they were seeking out lost and confused customers – plentiful at BHV – but usually it’s necessary to hunt them down. Salesperson is actually misnomer, as is customer service agent, a more accurate title might be proctor or hall monitor.

Remarkably, I found exactly the vacuum bags I was looking for, almost immediately, but it occurred to me to confirm this with the proctor on duty in the department. A few meters away, a green vested man stood behind an official looking computer terminal. As I approached him, so did an older gentleman, holding in his hands a package containing a set of attachments to a vacuum cleaner.

“Do I have to buy all of these?” he asked, “because I only want this one element.” He pointed to the largest attachment, the one that really matters.

The green-vested man shrugged.

“But I don’t need all the other pieces,” the old man said.

Non,” the green-vest pouted, “it’s only sold like this.”

The old man persisted. “Isn’t it at all possible to buy just the one part I want?”

Beh, oui, if you go to the service commandé, but then you’ll pay a 20 euro fee for a special order.”

The old man walked away, muttering about the waste inherent in this entire transaction. I expected the green-vest to turn to me, and braced myself for his gruff greeting. To my surprise, he took off after the old man, yelling at him for being rude, for his unnecessary words.

Granted, the old man hadn’t been particularly polite. But the green-vest had been equally uncivilized. Having been exposed to the Stew Leonard school of customer service (Rule #1, the customer is always right. Rule #2, if the customer is wrong, refer to rule #1) I was shocked to witness a store employee actually chasing after customer in order to scold him.

I followed them. By the time I caught up, the green-vest was ripping into the old man. They both turned, looking just as surprised as I felt to be standing there with them.

“How can you speak to a customer like that?” I said to the green-vest. “It’s the purchases he makes in this store that pay your salary. He may have been impolite to you, but he doesn’t merit a response like this.” (And I can’t be sure, but I think in the storm of my indignation I still managed to use the correct conditionel form.)

Both men stared at me as if I was insane. Which I am, because it is insanity to expect kind customer service in France. Not that you can’t find it, not that there aren’t plenty of thoughtful, helpful French salespeople. It’s just that you can’t expect it.

When the green-vested man started to shout at me, I turned and walked toward the escalator, confident that the vacuum bags I’d selected would fit my machine, certain that I could buy them at a cash register on another quieter floor, perhaps closer to the light-bulb department. On the escalator, I said, out loud to myself, “he could use some customer service training.” The man beside me chuckled. “It’s probably because he didn’t like the outcome of the election.”

Later, I wondered if all those errands had dampened my take-it-as-it-comes pilgrim spirit, that I’d piled on too much, entered too far into the realm of my regular life to maintain my cooler, collected pace. It’s true that by the week’s end, the symptoms of my usual departure stress started to surface. I’m squeezing things in to clear the decks to be away again – this time for a much longer stretch – and I’m feeling the pinch. I’ve heard people say that once you’ve done the Camino, there’s a before and an after. I guess for me, it seems, I’m still in between.


May 12 2012

There and Back

There it was, just at the moment I’d started to wonder if I’d made a wrong turn, the discreet yellow arrow pointing the way. If the trail is in an open field, scaling a steep hill or snaking through a forest, it’s hard to lose it. When the Camino winds through a town – even a tiny pueblo – the arrows can be tricky to spot. You have to pay attention. Not that much could go wrong. Some local would spot you – pilgrims, with their fat backpacks, wide-brimmed hats and walking sticks, stand out – and would gently correct your course. If not, enough time would pass without a yellow arrow or one of the blue-and-yellow shells marking the trail, and you’d retrace your steps easily. The Camino is well indicated. No compass required.

Before leaving, the Fiesta Nazi gave me a copy of the book Wild, by Cheryl Strayed (a.k.a. Dear Sugar), a memoir about a 3-month trek on the Pacific Crest Trail. This was a journey. She hiked from the southern part of California to the Washington state border, alone, carrying on her back a tent, sleeping bag, water filters, cooking gear, food rations and water. Her pack, much more than double what mine weighed. She had to make camp every night and cook for herself, and her trail was truly in the wild, with bears and rattlesnakes, and not so plentifully marked, often requiring mountaineering skills to determine if she was on course or not. The Camino de Santiago de Compostela is a luxury tour in comparison.

There was some irony in the presentation of the book, an inch-plus-thick hard cover volume (with a heartfelt inscription) handed over just as she was about to inspect the clothing and travel items I’d laid out on my bed. I had two long-sleeved shirts ready to pack. “Only one,” she said. I held up my nightgown. “Sleep in your clothes.” I tried to hide the travel-sized canister of hairstyling mousse and a half filled tub of sticky hair gel under a pile of socks, but she discovered them. “Can’t you get by with only one of these?”

She is, I might add, a card carrying member of Overpackers Anonymous; when we travel together each summer to Pamplona, her suitcase is packed until the seams stretch. But she is also a seasoned trekker, and along with another friend who guides and is no stranger to the Camino, gave me invaluable counsel to go as light as possible. I think that even with a full load of water (I could carry 3 liters) and any fruit or lunch I carried, I never had more than 9 kilos on my back. I managed to wear every piece of clothing I took, and never once wished for something I hadn’t brought.

Even if the Camino isn’t roughing it like hiking in the wilderness, it’s not without rigor. The first leg, a 25K trek over one of the Pyrenees mountains, is an early test. Climbing it is hard on the heels, the descent taxes the toes. About 6K of this I navigated in the rain, but I didn’t even mind. Already in the rhythm of one foot then another, I watched the sky quench the ground’s thirst, stepping over thick black slugs and keeping a lookout for little yellow arrows.

I learned when to start off each morning, not so early as to be with the throngs of up-and-out eager hikers, but not so late that I’d lose those precious cool morning hours. Around 8:30, I’d fall in with the slow trickle of pilgrims, moving along one-by-one or two-by-two. I’d find myself happily alone on the trail for long stretches, until I might come upon a couple of hikers, or else I’d be passed by someone with a faster gait than I, and we’d exchange a quick, friendly greeting, “Buen Camino!” and keep on at our own pace.

Once in a while it feels right to stay in step with a fellow pilgrim. The conversation usually includes banal but anchoring facts: Where are you from? Where did you start the Camino? How far will you go? Sometimes we’d divulge the reasons we’d come to do the Camino: the expectations, reflections, questions and decisions we carry with us as we walk. After a while, a stop under a shady tree for a rest, a snack, a drink of water, and one of us would move on, alone, without apology. There is a constant weaving in and out of being alone and having company, of solitude and camaraderie.

In the evenings I’d hunt down a café-bar on a small side street for a beer and a bite. If I wanted a little company, I knew I could stroll to the main square and spot the faces of pilgrims I’d passed or whom I’d chatted with briefly at a village fountain while replenishing our water bottles. I didn’t know most of their names, but after several days I started to recognize the cast of characters now so familiar and friendly, my pilgrim family. There’d be a sense of relief to see them, like oh good, you made it today, too. Everyone is rooting for you. And you for them, too.

We’d chat about the terrain, the scenery, the heat, our sore feet and other body parts not accustomed to 20+ kilometers a day for successive days. It was good to have the companionship, and also good to leave the laughing crowd behind and stroll to my pensione, usually a modest place, luxurious because it had its own bathroom (I haven’t opted for the dormitory-styled albergues, yet). I’d take the things I’d hand-washed and hung to dry in the late afternoon sun on my matchbook-sized balcony, and hum to myself as I prepared my pack for the next day, a day that, like the one before and the one to follow, had only one errand: to walk from one place to another. And even then, I could walk as slow or fast as I pleased, and I could change the location of my stopping off point at any moment along the way.

After five days and 115 kilometers, I’d probably just found my stride on the Camino, but I was preparing to leave it. All week I’d been answering the same questions, how I’d started in St-Jean-Pied-de-Port, how I hoped to do the entire Camino in several chunks this spring and next fall, how this first leg would last only a week, to Estella, after which I would return home to Paris for Short-pants‘ orchestra performance. I heard myself say this, again and again, noting that it was without resignation, and possibly even with a bit of pride, that I announced this priority.

“Is your daughter renown?” asked one hiker, surprised that I would interrupt my walk on the Camino to attend a concert.

“To me she is,” I said.

A few years ago I probably would have made the same decision, but not without complaint. Now it feels like it’s just a natural part of my Camino, to return to Paris for Short-pants’ recital, and then to go back and pick up where I left off.

So I am home. My feet are sore, but only mildly blistered. My legs tired, but stronger. My dirty laundry, washed and hanging to dry. The long day of travel – by bus to train to plane – well worth it to be greeted with the enthusiastic hugs of Short-pants and Buddy-roo (and De-facto, too). The concert: the string ensemble played three lovely arrangements. Quick and sweet. Not-always-in-tune or in-time, but as far as I’m concerned, a renown performance.


May 5 2012

The Way

I woke up every hour, on the hour, all night long. It was the quintessential night-before-a-voyage restlessness, a low-grade worry that you’ll oversleep – that somehow the alarm you checked three times already won’t go off or else won’t wake you. Or just nerves, the kind that come before you’re about to do something you thought you wanted to do, until it was upon you and you wondered, what was I thinking? It could have been bit of residual jet-lag from last week’s trip to a different time zone. Excitement about the journey ahead. Or possibly it was the supermoon wreaking havoc with my sleep cycle.

I’d finished preparing my backpack – and weighing in at 7.3 kilos – at about 12:30 am. I shut off the lights and the glow from the moon flooded the living room like daylight. I tiptoed upstairs to check on the girls one last time. I’d heard Short-pants stirring earlier, I sensed she was still awake.

“Come, look at the moon!”

She popped up in bed – she’d been reading and probably had just turned off her light – and positioned herself to look out the skylight. The moon hung heavy above the rooftops of the city, any clouds that had covered it spread apart like a curtain on a stage. The official full moon is actually tonight, but last night’s dress-rehearsal was a good indication of its beauty and power.

We marveled at the big white disc, side-by-side, until the tiredness pulled her back to her pillow. I sat beside the bed and brushed her hair off her forehead. Her baby cheeks are gone, a young woman’s features are emerging. In the moonlight I could glimpse the face of her future.

We whispered back and forth – not that Buddy-roo, solidly asleep in the adjacent room, could have heard us. It’s just how you talk, in a whisper, when you’re up talking in the dark, in the middle of the night.

I thanked her for being my daughter. I thanked her for being so sweet and so lovely. I told her I appreciated her being so supportive of me going off to hike the Camino, how much that meant to me.

“You’ll have a good walk,” she said.

Later I slipped into my own bed, spooned myself around De-facto, putting my breathing in step with his. I tried to sleep but I could not still my thoughts. We’d talked about the possibility of him joining me on these first days of the camino. Why hadn’t we organized this? I’m not in the mood to be apart from him right now. What was I thinking?

Maybe it was that moon. Short-pants couldn’t sleep either. Or she came down to comfort me, sensing that I, too, wasn’t asleep. She crawled in to our bed and reached her long thin arm around me. Sandwiched between her and De-facto, I finally dozed, but only in short spurts. Her snoring didn’t help, but I didn’t want to escort her back to her room. I half hoped that Buddy-roo would come join us, too. I’ve never been an advocate of the family bed, but this once, I wouldn’t have minded.

This morning I stowed my heeled, fashion boots in the closet and laced up my sturdy, hopefully-broken-in-by-now hiking boots, hoisted my pack up on my back, but not before sneaking a peek at the sleeping bodies I was leaving behind and planting light kisses on dreaming foreheads. Why does it feel harder than usual, this time, to leave them?

I write this from a train, the TGV, slicing through the green landscape toward St. Jean Pied de Port, the gateway of the Camino de Santiago de Compostela. Tomorrow, weather permitting, I will hike over a mountain into Navarra and my adventure will begin. Or maybe it already has.

Not sure how technically present I’ll be, probably not so much. But if the spirit moves me, I’ll send an occasional tweet from the #camino or I’ll post a few words or an image along the way. It’s only a week, this first leg, a chance to taste the route before I must go back to Paris for some family duties for a few days, and then I’ll return to the trail. It’ll be a bit more back-and-forth than I’d like, possibly interrupting the flow of my walking experience. But maybe it’s not such a bad thing, to be able to touch base with my people. It’s not the usual way to do the camino, or even the ideal way, but apparently it’s my way.

What was I thinking?