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.
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.
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.
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.

11 Responses to “Walking into Fifty”

  • Franca Says:

    Happy birthday my lovely friend! Thank you for including us in your journey.

  • Diane Houle-Rutherford Says:

    Bon Anniversaire!
    I am touched to be able to follow you on your journey. Thank you.
    I must admit that you are taking our Creative Time Out to a totally different level…

  • magpie Says:

    Happy birthday! I wish I could be there with you. I’ll toast you tonight, with a nice dry sauvignon blanc.

  • Caroline Fraley Says:

    May you have had a great, sweet and memorable birthday on that symbolic and challenging journey.

    This is a beautiful post and I enjoyed it greatly, thank you. I particularly enjoy and relate to the “inner church” moments and often find myself sitting in the church with you – that’s how good your writing and sharing is!

    You have all my admiration – for the walking, reflecting and the sharing. Feliz Cumpleanos!


  • Oceanaddict Says:

    Love and miss you. I am sending you a big squeeze and hope you have a beautiful anniversario! I wish I could be there to greet you along your path this weekend, but rest assured, I’ll be around another bend not too long from now 🙂

    One of the most beautiful quotes:
    “Take a course in good water and air; and in the eternal youth of Nature you may renew your own. Go quietly, alone; no harm will befall you.”-John Muir

  • René Bernèche Says:

    Happy birthday on the camino! Many more creative years to come!

  • kunyi Says:

    Many, many happy returns.
    I am fascinated with the thought that you are doing this. It’s very inspired and inspiring. I am inspired. I’ve been cleaning out closets, and eves, and attics, and the easiest thing I can say to myself to help me rid myself of stuff, stuff, and more stuff, is “you won’t need this where you’re going,” even though I don’t really know where that is.
    My favorite line in this is “after all that contemplative crap, I needed a beer”. That was fantastic and perfect.
    I will happily and gratefully drink one to you later this evening, with or without the contemplative crap, just because I enjoy your writing and thoughts so much, and hope you have what you want.
    Walk in the light.
    xo kunyi

  • Susan Thoren Says:

    Wonderful! Makes me think of our annual hikes –packs heavy with tent, sleeping bag, food and too much stuff. So much like the emotional stuff we haul around all of our lives. The minute we let it all go, lighten our packs of the unnecessary – how much sweeter the hike. Happy hiking beautiful friend — through the next 50! xo

  • Jeremy Says:

    “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.”

    Sounds like Life, even — perhaps — for those off the Camino.

    Truly inspiring.

  • julia Says:

    happy happy milestone. my best friend gave me great advice a couple of years ago when i hit the same mark… this next decade can be one of acceptance, if we allow it to be… if we let go of all the notions that we were going to BE SOMEONE, or save somalia, or at the very least lose 10 lbs. we are who we are. it took a huge weight off me at the time. xx

  • Lori Popkewitz Alper Says:

    What an incredible way to celebrate your birthday. Happy happy birthday. I’m so glad you came to the realization that you’re exactly where you are supposed to be right now and you will be just where you need to be for the next 50. Wishing you all the best.

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