Mar 31 2013

And in the End

I’d given up being organized by the time I got to this part of the Camino. At the beginning, I had to think through my itinerary in order to squeeze it into our family schedule and wrap it around my birthday celebration. But during these last two weeks I was very much in the groove of landing where I landed, sorting out stopping points and sleeping accommodations when it was time to stop or time to sleep. I had all my gear all the time – despite the pre-Camino back injury I never needed to use a bag transport service – this meant I was at liberty to call it a day, or continue on, whenever I wanted.
menacing_sky
After Santiago, I’d heard, there were fewer places to stay and many might still be closed for the winter. I called ahead to a guest house/albergue in Augapesada, 11k from Santiago, to be sure it was open. This would be a respectable distance to walk given a mid-afternoon departure after the pilgrim’s mass. The sky was a threatening shade of gray, and I wanted some assurance of a bed under dry cover. The next option wouldn’t be for another 10k and I wouldn’t make it there before it was dark. I’m told you can always knock on any door that has a shell on it, along the route, to ask for help,or shelter. I think that’s to be saved for a real emergency, not for poor planning.

The gray clouds turned out to be much more than threatening and I arrived at the front door of the albergue thoroughly soaked, apologizing to the proprietor for the mud I was about to drag in. He was unperturbed about my wet backpack and my dirty boots, and showed me not to a room of bunk beds, but to a room with a princess canopy hanging from the ceiling, draped over a big bed with a thick, quilted cover. After a hot shower, I was invited to make myself at home in the salon in front of the fire while his wife did my laundry and cooked me dinner. I ended up being the only boarder that night, and it felt a little bit like I was in the tender care of surrogate parents.

The next morning, my host asked how I’d slept. “Como los meurtos,” I said. Like the dead.

Apropos, since this part of the Spain is called Costa da Morte, or the death coast. The pagans believed that this is where souls went before ascending into heaven. Before Columbus and Magellan proved that the earth was round, it was believed that this was the end of the world, and to go out to sea beyond the horizon would mean sailing over the edge to your death, the ultimate end.

I was merely prolonging my ending, continuing from Santiago to Finisterre. I knew another end was in sight, at the coast, but I also knew it would take a few more days of walking to accept it. That’s the thing about poles_markerendings, they’re hard to accept. Even when you know what’s next. At the end of a trip, you’re sad that it’s over, but you know what you have to do: go home, do your laundry, get back into your routine. When you finish a big project, you grieve at the end of it, even if you’re a bit relieved. Maybe you don’t exactly know what’s ahead but you have an idea, and soon enough the next assignment, vague at first, takes shape. But when you come to the end of your life, you don’t know what’s next. Is there a heaven? A next life? Is it just the end – that’s what my mother thought – before an eternity of nothing?

Funny, this Camino, a religious path for so many people, turned out to be an existential one for me. Someway along the way, between O Cebreiro and Portomarín, I kind of wanted to know, like, why we’re here.

I’m not the first to ask this question and I won’t be the last. And it’s not that I haven’t asked it before, although I’d wager it was a more intellectual query. This time it had a different timbre. Walk 500 miles across the north of Spain, you have some time to think, maybe about things you thought before, but you think about them longer because you don’t get interrupted. This presents an opportunity to pursue a string of thoughts much further than usual. And that’s how I got here, during the last days into Santiago and the days beyond, toward Finisterre, with this what’s the meaning of it all story. I imagine this sounds ridiculous and navel gazing to those of you reading this, but truly, you do get a little crazy, walking for fifteen days by yourself.

Maybe it was the rain. After five rainy days in a row, even though I’d surrendered to it, even though I didn’t even try to stay dry, even though I knew everything I was wearing would be soaking wet by the time I got where I was going, I still had to ask myself, why are you doing this? I suppose with so much time to think about it, that very simple why expands to a larger, metaphorical and then metaphysical why. Every step I’ve taken from the French border to the coast of Spain is very meaningful to me now. But in a hundred years, nobody will know or care. In the end, what’s the point? Why are we doing this walk on the planet? Why do we even bother?
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The religious view on this, one I respect as comforting to many but unsatisfying to me, attributes it to the will of a higher being. But why? The reincarnationists would have that we live over and over again to learn our life lessons. But why? Scientists say we are the product of a big bang that over billions of years led to life forms that crawled out of the muck and evolved into the sentient creatures we have become. But why? No matter which I might believe or understand to be true, the reason for the time spent on this earth – at least for me – is still unanswered.

This isn’t the question I started out with, in those early, organized days of the Camino, when I wanted to walk and think about how to make the most of the rest of my life after a milestone birthday. I imagined that the question would evolve, and it’s true that several questions emerged along the way. But the more time that passed, and the more I played by this land where you land playbook, the more I landed back this unanswerable question.

I walked 90 more kilometers beyond Santiago, more than half of that in the rain, the other half with the threat of rain. I slept in a damp, drafty, heatless albergue, on a bunk crammed in a room of snoring, coughing pilgrims. I found dryer, comfortable shelter, too, like the one with the princess curtain, or another, where I was all by myself in a room of eight beds. I navigated trails of deep mud, hopped over puddles nearly the size of a pond. I walked alone the entire time, the only pilgrims I passed, but for those I met at the albergues, were the ones coming the other way, returning to Santiago. This was the perhaps the most isolated leg of my entire trip. I experienced moments of private euphoria as never before, and moments of aloneness that were neither good nor bad, just profound. Every night I was relieved to remove my pack and take off my boots. Every morning, champing at the bit to put my pack back together and and set off for the next day’s walk.
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I landed in Finesterre on Good Friday. I crossed the moors that morning in the fog. I could smell and hear the ocean before I could see it. As I descended the wet, sandy and rocky slopes to the coast, the Camino gave me a last rain shower to make sure I got wet, one final involuntary baptism. That night the procession of the Saints, the Spanish tradition for celebrating Easter, passed by the window of my pensión, a parade of cloaks and hoods carrying saints and crosses like a funeral march to mark the end that comes before a new beginning.

The next morning, a huge surprise and a great gift, outside my window: sunshine. The real deal, with blue sky and good clouds, the kind that don’t portend imminent rain. This morning’s walk a very quick jaunt, just three kilometers to the tip of the cape of Finisterre, truly the end of the (old) world. I found a smoother rock amongst those on the craggy cliff and sat on it, thinking, meditating, talking to myself, watching the surf crash against the shore. So violent, its arrival, as if the water itself was surprised to encounter this outcropping of land.

It was still early. I was ahead of the tour buses that, in a few hours time, would crowd the parking lot on the other side of the lighthouse. I sat alone on those rocks for a good half an hour before a few random pilgrims came along – some I recognized from these last days on the route – and found their own perch. Quietly together, we looked out at the horizon.
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At the end of it all, there, looking out at the ocean, I could only shrug at this notion of why. I never came to a definitive answer. But there’s another question, the one that follows naturally, one that absolutely did get answered for me during my walk on the Camino de Santiago de Compostela. I may not know why we walk this earth, but I think I know how:

Go a little bit slower so you don’t step in the mud. Look up, so you don’t miss the beauty. Smile whenever you can, it’s contagious. Be kind, kinder still to those who aren’t; they need it the most. If you need to be snarky (because it is therapeutic) do it under your breath. Take everything that is offered to you and be prepared to give away what you have, because other stuff will come. Figure out how, even if it’s hard, to be grateful. It’s better for you than being angry.

Throughout the Camino, but especially here, at this ending point, I couldn’t help but think about my parents. They both loved to travel, and though they never would have endeavored this pilgrimage themselves, they would have appreciated my journey, my mother especially. I wished I could see her and tell her about it. And I knew that if I was missing my mother that much, my little girls were probably missing me something fierce, too. It was time now, I knew, for me to go home.

I pushed myself up off that rock, my perch at the end of the Camino and the end of the world, and picked up my pack and my poles, and made my way back to town, and the next day, back to Paris, to my man and my girls, to see if I could practice what I preach. This time, though, I did look back, so I wouldn’t forget how far I’d come.


Mar 28 2013

Ultreïa

As I came out from under a canopy of trees, the skies opened up. The rain had been steady all morning, something like a constant sprinkler, but now it came down in sheets. In just minutes, I was drenched. During the days before, the rain had been gentle or playful, intermittent, volleying back and forth with the sun. This morning it was unyielding. The wetness was inescapable. I have rain 20130329-203023.jpgpants and a Gortex jacket, but this kind of rain finds its way under your sleeves and seeps into your clothes. I pulled the strings of my hood tight, closing it around my head. I leaned in to the rain and the wind, focused on my muddy boots. One foot in front of the other, step by step. Just a little further to go.

The night before, at dinner, a new friend – I appreciated having some company after so many days of eating alone – asked if I ever listened to music while walking, and if it might be interesting to listen to Oliver Schroer‘s recording, Camino, on my final leg into Santiago. He’d learned about Schroer from one of my blog posts, and even downloaded the album for himself. I haven’t listened to the music function on my phone at all during the Camino. I carry the earbuds only to transcribe, in the evenings, what I may have dictated during the day using a recording app. A string of words will come to me and if I want to remember them, I have to capture them quickly. These little snippets become aural markers of the route; musings with the sound effects of my footsteps, birds and dogs and passing tractors. Other than that I’ve tried to leave my phone in my pocket, except to take an occasional photograph. I prefer to be present – sight and sound – with the walking experience.

It wasn’t until this very wet moment that I remembered his suggestion to have a soundtrack to accompany me into Santiago. Ahead there was a tunnel under the highway. I stopped beneath it, set my backpack down on “dryer” ground and dug deep inside to find the plastic bag with my earphones. I selected the music, figured out how to tuck in the wires and keep (hopefully) electronic things dry. When I emerged from under the overpass, the rain pounded against me, almost horizontally.

The first song started out jubilantly. It made me smile, buoying me as I ventured out from the cover into the downpour. But the chords soon turned minor and introspective, matching the somber rhythm of the relentless rain. It was kind of a perfect storm: a violin playing in a minor key, every note enhanced by the acoustics of ancient churches along the Camino, played by a man who died of the same disease as my mother. This, on the last day of my way to Santiago, another ending. It wasn’t my intention when I put the music on, to put myself into a state. But there I was, marching along, dripping, drenched, so wet that I didn’t even try not to get wet anymore. The rain 20130329-205738.jpgdripping off my hood into my eyes, the rain dripping from my nose and eyelashes. The rain, the music, the end, all of it dripping together. That’s when I began to weep.

Why was I crying? I wasn’t sure: I thought I was glad and proud to be finishing the Camino. Then I recognized it, the feeling. It was grief. I was grieving the end of this walk, a journey that I had been planning and looking forward to – and in the midst of – for over a year. I was grieving some part of me, a part I don’t need anymore, but a part I was used to. I was grieving, again, good people who’ve passed on: my mother and my father, grandparents, my friend Dilts and the pilgrim I hardly knew, Mark from Michigan, the one who shared his olives with me the day before he died. Another friend called Bomber. Not that we were close, but that it’s recent and he was young. A whole list of people who now live only in the world of memory. The violin played on, track after track. My tears indistinguishable from the rain.

~ ~ ~

For the last week I’d been toying with the idea of continuing on the Camino, after Santiago, to Finisterre, the furthest outpost of land on the European continent, the edge of the old world. The Camino extends beyond Santiago to the two coastal towns of Finisterre and Muxia, 90 kilometers further. When I planned this last leg, I estimated 12 days to Santiago, but I bought a return ticket a few days later, a buffer in case I needed a day midway to rest, or for an extra day in Santiago, to go to the pilgrim’s mass. When I found myself making better time than I expected, going further, all the way to the ocean, became a real possibility.

Ultreïa means to keep going, or literally, still further. The term comes from Latin, it’s heard in a French song about the Camino, and I heard it and saw it written in various forms along the route. I had understood it as an encouragement to keep going, to go further than you think you can. As I approached Santiago, I felt this call, Ultreïa. Since I am not particularly religious, the Cathedral and its pomp and circumstance and the sin-expiating power of the compostela carried less weight for me than simply making the journey. If anything, it made more sense for me to end this pilgrimage not at a big church, but instead at the western coast of Europe and the Atlantic ocean.

scallop_shells

The Camino was originally a pagan route, and the Christianization of the region involved incorporating this ritualized road of the Druids and the Celts who were here first. I also heard that the original St. James pilgrims had to walk all the way to Finisterre first. To prove that they’d done so, they had pick up a scallop shell, distinctive to the area, and bring it back to Santiago. This is how the shell became the symbol of the pilgrimage. Nowadays it’s given to you when you start, or you can buy them along the way. Most pilgrims attach the shell to the back of their backpacks, like a badge, worn with pride.

~ ~ ~

It was raining too hard to even unzip my rain pants and reach into my pocket and pull out the map to check the distance to the next hamlet where I might find a café or bar to rest and dry out, or at least have a break from the rain. I kept walking and hoping – nearly praying – for a place to stop. Finally, a corner turned and a small casa rural with red and white checked tablecloths on the tables. I stood at the bar, unable to speak. The owner tried to offer me something in Spanish, and in English. Then he understood that I was too moved to speak or too wet to answer, or both. He left me alone for a few minutes so I could compose myself.

I wanted caldo, but it was only noon and the cook didn’t come until one o’clock. The proprietor said he could make me a sandwich but otherwise the kitchen was closed. Ten minutes later, he appeared with a bowl of soup. He must have heated it up himself. He poured me a glass of red wine and pointed to the heater where I could put my wet outer clothes to dry. I have insufficient words to describe my gratitude in that moment.

I could have stayed there. He had rooms. I could have checked in, had a warm bath, pulled myself together and hiked in the last 8 kilometers in the morning. It would have been an entirely reasonable solution, given the weather. But after the soup, and then a second course once the chef arrived, and a bit of time to rest and ready myself, there was no question. This was the day I was to arrive in Santiago. I was too close. I could go further still. Ultreïa!

~ ~ ~

The violin music was the right serenade for the walk through the initial urban sprawl of Santiago, I wish I’d thought to use music while traversing the outskirts of other larger cities along the route. It eased the discord between pilgrim and progress. The rain was merciless, but now I was laughing at it. As20130329-200155.jpg I approached the entrance to the city center, it let up slightly. I walked up the first narrow street into to the medieval part of the city, and just as the top of the spires of the cathedral came into view – I kid you not – the sun came out. Briefly, barely, but it was a brighter light beaming through a thinner cloud.

A bagpiper droned in the street, standing under an arch, playing a somber but celebratory march as I came around to the entrance of the cathedral. I’d stood there once before years ago, as a tourist, never imagining I would approach this grand stairway having walked 500 miles to get there. Strangers congratulated me. A tourist wanted to take my picture (“look, a real live pilgrim”). I wanted to laugh and to cry, so I did a little of both.

The next day, my Latin inscribed compostela in hand, I went back to the Cathedral. I’d heard my father’s voice in the back of my head, “You’ve walked this far, go to the mass.” I found the pew where he would have sat, a third of the way back on the left side. I tried to think of the last time I was at a Catholic mass. Maybe at someone’s wedding, years ago. I certainly don’t go to confession anymore; I’m not convinced that the priests’ sins aren’t worse than mine. I have little faith in the Church, a mixed-faith upbringing, and questionable faith in my daily practice. But I was still comforted by the familiarity and the rituals of the mass. It reminded me of my childhood, those long, boring services, about which my father used to say, “it’s a good time for thinking because nobody interrupts you.” So I sat and I thought and I meditated, and I stood up and I sat down and stood up and sat down. Just as I was getting restless like a kid in church, it was time for communion. I remembered how my father would give us the knowing nod, and we’d follow him up to the priest, take the host, and then follow him out the side door to the parking lot so we could get to the ski mountain or to the lake and to our little sunfish sailboat. De-facto‘s father used to pull the same stunt, sneaking out after communion. So I gave a knowing nod to both of our fathers, 20130329-175842.jpgand took my cue just as the others in my row stood up and moved to the center aisle, I picked up my pack and poles and scooted out, around the back of the church, nodding goodbye to familiar faces and fast friends made during the last days, and slipped out the side door.

I’d been to the Galician tourist office that morning, they gave me a walking map to Finisterre. I had to hunt around a bit, to find the first marker, indicating the route out of Santiago. Just at the edge of the square, between the city hall and the Parador, I found it. A bright yellow arrow, a familiar friend, pointing west, pointing me further still on my way. Ultreïa!


Mar 23 2013

The Higher Road

I hadn’t met a single pilgrim on the road for three full days. Not that there weren’t any – I saw four people the very first day – but there weren’t many. For two nights in a row I was the only person staying in a pensión. The third morning I saw another place setting at breakfast, but I headed out before he or she came to the table. The only people I conversed with were hoteliers and hospitaleros, and barmaids at cafés along the way. I relished the solitude. Hours alone, just the sound of my footsteps and the swish-swish of my wet-weather pants. Nothing to do but walk and think and talk to myself out loud.
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Except I’d catch myself thinking sour thoughts: remembering a difficult person, hashing over an unpleasant memory, or thinking about a conversation I’m not looking forward to. When I noticed this, I’d correct it, taking a deep breath of fresh air or focusing on the stunning vistas around me. I’d try to think about something good, like De-facto and Short-pants and Buddy-roo and how lucky I am that they would give me the space and time to do the Camino. Then, some kilometers later, I’d catch myself again, trudging through the bad stuff.

Why is that? Why is it that when my mind wanders, it meanders so easily to ugly thoughts? I’m not saying not to address or confront the difficult situations in life. But to fester with them, which I’m adept at, is really a waste of valuable mental capacity, not to mention that ever-precious commodity, time.

It makes me think about how important it is to pay attention to my train of thought, to be mindful of altering the ratio of “time spent thinking” in favor things positive and productive.

~ ~ ~

Coming out of Villafranca del Bierzo there are three routes, accordingly to the Brierley guidebook that I carry. The lower road snakes along the Route N-VI, passing through lots of little villages and hamlets. While easier on the knees – you don’t have to climb up and down any hills, or navigate rocky, muddy, or snowy trails – it’s not easy on the soul. You walk beside the cars and trucks, often sharing the road with them. It can also be dangerous; once when the path was merged with the road, I was in such a Camino zone I almost didn’t notice the oncoming car. 20130324-184532.jpg

Another route is marked in the guidebook by a series of green dots, indicating an alternative scenic route, generally more forested and the furthest away from traffic. On these routes, you have to carry all your water and food. No counting on a village café to buy a bocadillo or have a bowl of caldo and you can’t be certain of finding potable water. This particular green-dotted route, called the Dragonte, is 25.1 kilometers of nature and no civilization, crossing three mountains, up and down. It would be gorgeous. It would also be rigorous. Given that ten days ago I was flat out with a bad back, and how tricky the weather might be, I knew I couldn’t risk it. Especially since hadn’t seen another pilgrim on the route since the first afternoon.

The third route, to the north, is called the Pradela. The guidebook warns of its steep incline, and suggests that it is a challenging path, but I couldn’t bring myself to take the route in the middle of the valley with all the traffic, which could be as dangerous, if not more, than being alone on a ridge in a forest by yourself for 13k, the distance until the first hamlet. I knew better than to take the uber-scenic trail. I didn’t want the low road. This one, the higher road, seemed just right.

It started out with an sharp, steep slope. For at least a hundred meters it felt like I was climbing a never-ending staircase. Eventually the slope became gentler, but it still headed upwards, taking me to and along a high ridge that peaked at 930 meters. I had sun and clouds that 20130324-184550.jpgday, and lots of wind. I was high enough to have incredible views of the valley below and the mountains on the other side, with the trail I didn’t take. As the path gradually dipped back down toward the main road, it weaved through a forest of ancient chestnut trees with thick trunks and wise expressions. I was in the zone, like a runner’s high, so I stepped off the trail and wandered between the trees. I sat in the hollowed-out trunk of a grandfather chestnut tree, and thought about only good things.

~ ~ ~

On the first day back on the Camino – now already a week ago – I came into a tiny village and saw a young woman walking out of a café-bar carrying a beer. She set it down on the table on the terrace. She said hello to me, in English, with an American accent.

“That’s a good idea,” I said, eyeing her beer. I unhooked myself from my backpack, setting it on the chair of a nearby table so I could go inside and get one, too.

“Maybe you can tell me,” she said, “how much should I tip here in Spain?”

“I don’t tip them at all,” a brash voice coming out of the bar answered before I had a chance. It belonged to a guy, probably in his early thirties, shaved head, a bit of a swashbuckler. I couldn’t tell his origin, maybe Brit, maybe Down Under. He set his glass on another table, across the road, but he didn’t sit down.

I explained to the young woman the my policy for tipping in Spain: rounding up to an even number and then adding a little bit more, especially now because the economy is in rough shape and these people are scraping by, especially in the winter with so few pilgrims on the route.

“They’d make some money if they weren’t all closed,” the guy yelled from across the street, pacing back and forth. “Think I can make it back to Astorga tonight? I’m gonna walk back and take a bus to Madrid where things are happening. I’m sick of this. Nothing is open.”
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I wanted to ask him exactly why he’d started the Camino in the first place. But we were headed opposite directions and any suggestions I might make, soulful or reprimanding, probably wouldn’t register. I opted to keep quiet. Besides, it was my first day back on the Camino. Who was I to be a know-it-all? (At least out loud.)

It’s easy to be righteous. What’s harder is to let people be in their own place on their own path in their own problems. To observe, not in a scrutinizing or judgmental way, but in an observant and curious way, the kind where your silence might actually be more useful than your advice.

~ ~ ~

I lost track of the days of the week. I know the date, only because with every sello, or stamp, in my credentials, the barmaid or hospitalier is obliged to add the date. At first I tried to keep count of how many days to Santiago, but then I realized it involved keeping track of the time. While it may not be something I can do permanently, at least this week I can take a vacation from worrying about when and where I have to be next. So, it could take two more days, it could take four days, it depends on my feet, my back, the weather. I’ve walked in the pouring rain for two days now. It can make you walk faster. Or it can make you stop early for the day.

I’ve made good time, better than I expected, but not because I’ve been in a hurry. It happened more than once: I’d set off in the morning gauging where I might like to finish the day, thinking about a walk of 18-25k, targeting an albergue or a pensión marked in the guidebook. I’d get there, only to find everything shut tight. One day I walked 36k, passing through four villages that I hoped would have accommodation, but nothing was open. I found myself cursing them, out loud to nobody, for being closed. It made me think about that guy I met on the first day. I’m glad I didn’t say anything to him. I hope he’s having a good time in Madrid.
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The minimum distance you must walk to qualify for a compostela is 100 kilometers. People who don’t want to walk the whole distance of the Camino, or who can’t take the time, will start in Sarria, 100 kilometers away, and walk the four or five days it takes to get to Santiago. In Sarria, the volume of pilgrims increases, noticeably. All of a sudden, the luxurious days of walking without seeing a soul are over. My solitude has been abruptly interrupted.

The first morning out of Sarria, I ducked into a roadside café to rest my feet for a few moments. After days of being the only person in just about every bar I stopped at, I was surprised to see tables crowded with pilgrims and a line to use the bathrooms. There was a buzz of conversation, and then the ritual of pilgrim questions: Where are you from? Where did you start? Why are you doing the Camino?

I wasn’t really in the mood for this chatter. I wanted to shout out: What are all you people doing on my Camino? I’ve done the whole Camino Francés, from the beginning, in St. Jean Pied de Port, and I’ve been walking for days, over high peaks and through a foot of snow!

But I didn’t. I’ve spent too much time walking, and thinking, about the higher roads, and how to take them. I softly answered the questions, and asked a few of my own, gently moving into the company and companionship of others, on their own paths but for the next few days, next to mine, as the road, high and low, draws us all nearer to Santiago.


Mar 18 2013

Leaving Behind

I called out to the girls, playing in the yard. “Don’t forget I need a stone from each of you.”

They screeched in unison, remembering the task I’d assigned days ago – and reminded them of again the night before – to select a small rock from somewhere around our country house for me to carry on the Camino. My back was still tender; I wasn’t convinced that in a week’s time, especially after playing tourist in Barcelona, I’d be able to fly to León to make my way on foot to Santiago. But since the Pilates workouts I’ve been doing make my recoveries quicker, I held out some hope that I’d be up for the walk.

Short-pants ran toward me with her fist extended, opening it to reveal a small angular rock. Buddy-roo hobbled on her crutches soon after, offering me another stone, about the same size. I’d set my backpack, ready to go, on the 20130318-205137.jpg bench outside the country house so De-facto could put it in the trunk when he packed the car. I squatted down, carefully, and unzipped one of the small side pouches of my pack, saying out loud to myself where I was putting them, so I wouldn’t forget, later, where I’d stashed the two stones.

~ ~ ~

The taxi dropped me in front of the Cathedral in Astorga. I’d planned to take a cab from the León airport to the bus station in the city center and from there an hour-long ride to pick up where I left the Camino last summer. A few questions at the airport taxi stand and a little negotiation made the smarter option to go directly to my starting point in Astorga. I’d kissed the girls goodbye at 6:30 am as they slept in their beds in Barcelona. By 11:30 I was walking on the Camino Santiago de Compostela.

I stopped three times in the first kilometer to get myself situated, each time carefully removing my pack – at its heaviest with a full supply of water – shifting the tube to my water bladder from the left to the right side and moving key supplies to familiar places. Tissues and lip balm in the zipper compartment on one side, iPhone poised in camera mode on the other. Map in the left pants pocket, money in the right. I fell right back into the ergonomic system I’d worked out last year. The air was chilly but the sun was warm, my back seemed okay and my legs felt strong. I’d planned to walk just 5k, to get started. Twenty kilometers later I rolled into Rabanal, a village just before the highest point on the Camino, the Cruz de Ferro.

The next morning I looked out the window of my pensión to see the village rooftops of the covered in snow. The road was wet, though not slippery. It turned into a muddy track at the top of the village. With altitude the ground was frozen, and as I climbed higher there was snow, several inches covering the ground. The fog and the light sprinkling of falling snow 20130318-203011.jpglaid a blanket of quiet over everything. All I could hear was the sound of my boots crunching on the snow.

It’s customary for Pilgrims to leave a stone or a talisman at the Cruz de Ferro, a symbolic gesture of leaving something you’ve been carrying and no longer need. That’s why I’d asked the girls for stones. I’d been thinking, for a while, about what I’d like to let go. Something that would ease my own burden, but also that, if I really could leave it behind, would help my daughters, too. Either because I’d be happier, or because it’d model something important for them.

I dug through the compartments of my backpack to find the two stones that Short-pants and Buddy-roo had found for me and put them in my coat pocket so I could reach them easily at the right moment. One of them I’d designated as the burden of time. I have become so very tired, and bored, of thinking about time. I am allotted hours in the day that seem never to be sufficient. I became more aware of this during my stretches on the Camino last year, but I still struggle with time. I think about it, I talk about it, I complain about never having enough of it. I want to stop this.

I waste too much time catching up instead of being present – this relates to my second stone – because I am always trying to do what is (or I believe is) expected of me. To be a good girl. A good mother. A reliable colleague. A friend you can count on. None of these terrible qualities to be known for, unless achieving them cuts you off from being at ease with life and savoring it rather than rushing through it. I want to stop being good and start being true.

~ ~ ~

As I approached the Cruz de Ferro, I could barely see it because of the fog. I admired the huge mound of stones at its base, thousands of small rocks piled on top of each other, representing the prayers and requests of the pilgrims, faithful or not, who’ve passed by. I fingered the two stones in my pocket, thinking again, as I had been all morning, about what I had infused into them and what it would mean, the act of leaving them there. Not that I put so much import on a cross standing on a mound of stones at the top of a mountain along the road. Except that it can signify something, if I want it to. A wedding doesn’t ensure a lifetime as a happy couple, but it does serve as a milestone to mark your intention to be so. That is the purpose of rituals.
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The Camino itself is a ritual, and walking it doesn’t mean I will change entirely. I never expected to return home as someone new. Doing the Camino has been for me a chance to reflect upon everything I am walking in this lifetime, and I suppose, to try to be true to it.

I pulled those two rocks out of my pocket and said a few words to whatever force might be out there in the universe listening. I did this not because I necessarily believe that someone or something would answer me or grant my requests, but more because it was important for me to say my intention out loud and to hear myself say it. I don’t know if I’ll ever make peace with time. Being true instead of being good feels like a tall order. But I can try.

At first I placed the two little rocks neatly, side by side, on top of a larger flat stone. On second thought, I picked them both up and threw them haphazardly amongst the the other rocks. Now they were just part of the pile. I stared up at the cross. Prayer ties, attached to the pole, flapped in the wind.

Just beyond the Cruz de Ferro there’s a rest area with picnic tables. I wiped the wet snow off the bench, slipped out of my pack and took a seat. I pulled out a sandwich and ate it, slowly. When my feet felt rested enough or my body felt too cold – I’m not sure which – I stood up and and threaded my arms through the straps of my pack. The pinch that plagued me last week, just above my hip, was gone. I felt good. I walked away from the Cruz de Ferro and I didn’t look back.


Jul 27 2012

A Family Way

Driving west, the dry landscape lifted and then flattened. I recognized the terrain, and then the familiar towns, posted on road signs: Belorado, Burgos, Castrojeriz, Frómista, Carrión de los Condes, Sahagún. De-facto dumped us in the dusty town on the outskirts of León and drove away as we checked into our hotel, his bike strapped to the rack on the back of the car. He drove 45 clicks toward the sunset, to Astorga, where he parked the car and rode his bike back to us, arriving in time for dinner. That bike would spend three days in the basement of the hotel while De-Facto, Short-pants, Buddy-roo and I walked the Camino de Santiago together, as a family.

This was his birthday request, to give him and the girls a chance to see what it’s like to be on a the Camino. I divided what would have been not quite two days of walking on my own into three pieces, or roughly 15 kilometers each day, suitable, I hoped, for the legs and stamina of an 11 and a nearly 9-year-old. Even though I’d learned to trust the road and end up wherever you end up, with the girls in tow I thought it’d be smarter to map out our stops and reserve beds in advance. I even found an albergue that had small rooms with four beds, so they could experience the community feeling of the Camino but without the snoring and lack of privacy that is part of staying in a dormitory with 20+ beds. I also booked a night in an upmarket B&B, so we could have a little luxurious charm on our walk, too.

That first morning, sitting on the bed, I leaned over to tie my boots: Hello, old friends. I lifted my pack onto the table, turned and slipped my arms under the straps, content to have all the essentials close, on my back. I’d packed lighter than ever; we’d be walking only a few days and I needed to make room for the girls’ clothes. They had smaller daypacks – less than half the weight of what they carry to school in their cartables – to carry their own water, snacks, sandals and K-ways, in case of rain. Tucked in the side pocket of my pack were four pilgrim passports, three of them blank but ready for stamps.

Short-pants, whom we had to cajole and persuade through tears to join us for a 9k hike on my birthday weekend, turned out to be a most confident pilgrim. She often walked ahead of us, happy to be on her own. She insisted upon carrying her book – I’d limited her to only one – and occasionally tried to read it while she was walking. She never complained and wouldn’t tell me how sore her feet were until I asked. Even then, I think her feet hurt far more than she let us know.

The week before, we’d watched The Way, a movie about walking the Camino de Santiago de Compostela. In the film, each of the featured characters reveals a reason for being on the Camino, the objective they want to accomplish along the way. It was during the second day of our walk that Short-pants volunteered, during a moment she and I were alone, ahead of De-Facto and Buddy-roo, that she had two goals for the Camino.

“I want to stop picking my nose in public,” she announced, “and I want to stop yelling at my sister.”

Part of the Camino is the contemplation that comes from solitude and slowing down. Another part is the camaraderie and the exchanges with other pilgrims along the way. While Short-pants followed her instinct for self-reflection, Buddy-roo was busy making friends. At every stop, she’d strike up a conversation with fellow pilgrims. If we didn’t see them again, she’d speak of her new friends longingly, aching for another sighting. When we did happen to encounter familiar faces, she’d run up and greet them with full-bodied hugs. We hiked for an hour one morning with a Canadian man who was suffering multiple aches and pains from walking. The next day we met him again, at a roadside cantine at the end of a long, steep climb. She bolted over to him and threw her arms around his waist. He was startled at first, but when he realized it was Buddy-roo he surrendered fully to her healing affection. I bet that hug did more for him than the Advil, the sunblock or the pieces of sausage we’d shared with him the day before.

July is not an optimal month to be on the Camino. Afternoon temperatures soar, making it advisable to get up by sunrise and get on the trail early to walk in the cooler morning hours. On our final day – we actually walked 17k but didn’t tell the girls how long it was until we’d finished – we agreed to start off before dawn. When the alarm went off at 5:15, De-Facto went across the hall to wake the girls and found Short-pants, who’d set her own alarm, already up and getting dressed. Buddy-roo was harder to rally and she was grumpy about walking in the dark for the first half hour when we had to follow the yellow arrows by flashlight.

Two kilometers later, as the sky grew light enough to turn off the torch, we heard the sounds of a pulsing bass beat, like a discotheque in the distance. Could there be a late night club somewhere near? This would explain the pack of drunken boys we saw coming in to town when we’d started out. The music grew more audible as we entered the next little village, really just a hamlet, and as the Camino snaked into the center of town we stumbled into a full-on outdoor dance party, the annual village fiesta that had been raging all night. A pack of young revelers cheered and raised their drinks at us as we stepped around the flashing spotlights with our backpacks and walking sticks.

I suppose we could have kept our heads down, pushed through the dancing crowd and continued on our way. But that would have been humorless, and besides, the song that was playing was one of my favorites from the fiesta in Pamplona. I couldn’t help but dance. I looked over at De-facto, he was dancing too. Short-pants was even shaking her hips. Buddy-roo, whom you’d expect to dive into this kind of a social situation, disappeared behind a truck parked in the street. When De-Facto danced back a few steps to check on her, she came running into his arms in tears.

“It’s not right,” she screamed. “We’re supposed to be walking.”

Buddy-roo was unconsolable. I suppose you could argue her point: I’d easily have danced there for a half an hour or more, using up energy reserves that I’d need later to cover the distance when the sun was high and hot. Despite pleas from the partiers for us to stay, we collected our children and started to walk again, heading the wrong way until one of the locals, drink in hand, redirected us toward the yellow arrow and the road leading out of town.

As we left the little fiesta behind, Buddy-roo scolded us. “The Camino is for walking,” she said, officiously, “you’re not supposed to dance at a party that’s happening in the middle of it.”

“Sometimes things happen that you don’t expect,” I said, “the Camino gives you little gifts.”

The more we talked about it, the more convoluted her justification for being angry. When pressed, her reasoning deteriorated, and as it became less logical, her voice grew more authoritative. This is the thing she does that drives her sister berserk. Short-pants gets enraged at Buddy-roo for being a know-it-all when she’s obviously making-it-up-as-she-goes-along. She’ll yell and scream at her little sister and stomp off. I’ve tried to coach her to ignore Buddy-roo and just walk away when she starts to talk nonsense. Short-pants has never been able to let it roll off her back.

Buddy-roo babbled on about how the Camino is supposed to be and I braced myself for the blow-up. Instead, I heard Short-pants murmur something under her breath, loud enough for me to hear, but her sister missed it.

“Whatever you say, smarty-pants.”

Then she slowed her pace, dropping back several meters to take a little distance from her grumpy sister. A little quiet sarcasm, a giant step for Short-pants.

There’s such a surge in confidence when you achieve a goal. The kilometer count was daunting to both girls, but especially to Buddy-roo, the pokiest of our foursome. I’d slow down to walk with her, distracting her with stories to keep her from thinking about how much further we had to go. She did not suffer silently like her sister, but she never gave up. And at the end of each day’s walk she was always the proudest of the distance we’d covered. On the last leg of our little walking tour, only a few hours after her angry rant about the fiesta, it was Buddy-roo who was skipping and rocking her head happily from side to side, leading the way up a serious hill, thirty meters ahead of De-facto. I brought up the rear, watching my family spread out single file along the trail, everybody in their Camino zone, exercising legs and mind and spirit, each one on their own, but all of us together.


Jun 11 2012

Not in a Rush

When you slow down, a window opens and you see things you couldn’t see before. When you take your time, you sense things, because you’re not rushing through life facing forward, you’re ambling along, receptive to what’s around you. When you give yourself time, you think things through, following a string of thoughts from one thing to the next and then further. Unlike the one-thing-to-another we experience while surfing the web or multi-tasking through a busy day, staccato and mercurial, the thought process that accompanies a long walk in the country is calming and fluid, like waves of water rolling forward and back and forward again. It doesn’t take very long for the chatter to cease, the chirping in the back of your head quiets and the mind is filled with simpler thoughts. There is space for bigger thoughts, or the smaller thoughts have room around them to echo. You start to really see what’s inside you and around you, and notice things that you don’t notice when you’re in a rush.

~ ~ ~

Walking through Pamplona, one of the early stops along the Camino – this was in the beginning of May – I couldn’t help but be reminded of the rituals we enact there every July during the fiesta. It was odd to walk through that city without people and music spilling out into the streets. I walked down the empty Calle Merced, where in two months time, to the day, there’d be long tables set up end-to-end in the street, and friends would be assembling for a breakfast of greasy eggs and chorizo or pochas and red wine. I love those breakfasts, especially when the jota singers among the group stand up and sing their beautiful Navarran ballads. A man named Puchero is a force behind this, his voice bold and full, like his body. When he sings, his mouth stretches wide with each vibratoed note, his eyes bore into you, tearing sometimes because he is singing with such force. If he sings to you, the only thing to do is look right back at him with the biggest smile ever, and stay present to fully receive the song, sung in Spanish and if it is later translated, you are moved by the choice of words and their meaning.

For a minute, I wondered if the Fiesta Nazi, in a fit of generous mischief, would make some arrangement for Puchero to show up at my party and surprise me with a birthday jota. It would be only an hour’s drive for him, and not unthinkable for her to orchestrate something like this. At the same time, it was pretty far-fetched and highly unlikely. Still, I permitted my imagination to hold this image for a few minutes, just for the pleasure of the fantasy, picturing him singing to me and giving my assembled friends this taste of the Navarran culture. A little Walter Mitty moment during my walk.

Two weeks later, when the pit crew kidnapped me to go to my party, I found myself back in Navarra. The day before the big celebration – on my actual birthday – we decided to drive by St. Jean Pied de Port to see where I’d started the Camino. My credentials were getting full – I collected stamps not only from where I slept each night, but from the churches I visited and many of the cafe-bars I stopped at along the way – in St. Jean I could stop by the Camino office and get an extra pilgrim passport to use when my original one got filled up.

It was lunchtime in France – only a few miles away, over the border in Spain, lunch was still something to look forward to – and we decided to eat in St. Jean, installing ourselves at a table on a restaurant terrace along the street. We’d barely clinked glasses when a squat, thick man charged up to our table, trailed by about a dozen other people.

“I know those two girls,” he said between a string of colorful curses. We knew him, too. It was Puchero. By chance, he happened to be visiting St. Jean Pied de Port with a group from Pamplona and just happened to walk down the street where we just happened to be seated. We were as surprised to see him as he was to see us. The Fiesta Nazi didn’t miss a beat. “It’s her birthday,” she said, pointing at me, “sing her a jota!”

Without hesitating even a second, he launched into song, his robust voice belting out a wailing call. His face right away red, the veins in his temple squeezed as he forced every cubic inch of air out of his lungs before a new breath and a new phrase. He literally stopped all activity on the street. Every passerby, every diner on the terrace, every waitress, every shopkeeper, craned their necks to watch and listen to Puchero as he sang me my birthday jota.

It was framed slightly differently than my fantasy of weeks before, but nonetheless, the same elements were there. But this had not been organized in advance, it happened by chance, that Puchero was there and we were too. Had I experienced some kind of premonition? Or had my little fantasy sent out a request that was answered? Or was it all just a coincidence?

~ ~ ~

The first time I had the dream was in Estella, five days into the Camino. I guess you could call it a pilgrim-stress dream, in which I walked to the next town only to realize I’d left my walking poles in the previous night’s hotel. I woke up, relieved to see those familiar bastóns leaning against the chair, that I hadn’t left and walked an entire day’s stage without them. I had the dream again, the next night, waking to check that my poles were still there beside my bed.

A few days later, I lingered in a room I’d shared with five others, letting them all finish their morning ablutions first so that I might have a more leisurely and private departure. (This was prior to the hot meseta after Burgos, when my timing changed and a just-at-dawn departure was required to make tracks before the midday sun.) On my way out, I set my poles against the table by the door, stopping to take advantage of the wifi signal in the lobby to send a word of love to De-facto before heading out for the day’s walk. The door closed behind me, and I walked three blocks before realizing I’d left my poles at the albergue. When I returned, the door was locked and when I knocked, nobody answered. I sat on the stoop wondering how long I’d have to wait to get my poles, when I remembered I’d called the proprietor the day before, his number was in my phone memory. A quick call and he was there in 5 minutes, unlocking the door so I could reach in and retrieve my walking sticks.

Hold on to those poles, I told myself.

~ ~ ~

He stood to the side of the path and beckoned to me, holding out a small bag. “Would you like an olive?” he said, “I just opened them.”

Always accept small gifts on the Camino, I’d been told. So I reached in and pulled one of the plump green olives from the package, trying not to put my sweaty fingers in the juice that preserved them.

“I’m Mark from Michigan,” he said. I hadn’t met that many Americans along the way, he reminded me how exuberant my countrymen can be. He thrust the small bag toward me again. “Have another olive.”

I’d been singing to myself all day, a kind of stream-of-consciousness name-that-tune, when one simple word could provoke an entire medley of songs. I took another olive, but held it in my hand while I sang to him one part of a song from Godspell, which includes the lyrics,Your wife is sighing, crying, and your olive tree is dying.

The song is actually a duet I used to sing, in spontaneous moments, with a good friend Dilts – we called each other by our last names as a form of endearment – his part fast and syncopated and my part slow and melodic. The last line of my part: When you go to heaven you’ll be blessed, oh yes, it’s all for the best.

Mark from Michigan looked me straight in the eye, just the way I’d looked at Puchero when he sang to me, for the entire song, which I did not rush through, but rather sang to him very deliberately, emphasizing especially the word olive, to nod my head at the cause for this melody.

“That’s beautiful,” he said, when I finished. “If I go to heaven, I’ll wait for you there.” I ate my olive, thanked him again, and walked on.

Singing that song had conjured up images of my friend Dilts, his wry smile and his dry wit. He died eight years ago, cancer took him before he could turn fifty. I carried him with me for several kilometers, vacillating between missing him fiercely but also laughing out loud at things I remember him saying and doing. A lasting image of him, still in my mind now: his smart-ass smile, one eyebrow raised and jubilant fist in the air. I had Mark from Michigan to thank for conjuring up that string of memories, all from one single olive.

~ ~ ~

I made it to León, after 20 days of walking, covering 450 kilometers. The very last leg, by bus, as I didn’t want the lingering memory of this stretch of the Camino to be the industrial suburbs of the city. I figure the day I walked on the Camino Baztanés from Urdax to Elizondo is like extra credit, and makes up for the sage decision to avoid the plight of an urban pilgrim. A friend, an avid hiker, had joined me for these last two days of walking. Even she agreed this was a better choice than to march through truck fumes and under highway on-ramps. I could see much of the Camino route from the window, so I followed the trail with my heart, even though my feet were on the bus.

We took a train from León to San Sebastian, and in the rush of getting off the train, I neglected to pick up my poles, which I’d meant to strap to my backpack, but hadn’t gotten around to it, as they were useful until the last moment getting on the train. I’d put them on the overhead shelf and when I pulled down my pack, I somehow didn’t think to grab them. In fact, I didn’t realize they were missing until we’d walked ten blocks through San Sebastian in search of our hotel.

I didn’t get upset, even though they’d carried me so many miles, even though they’d become an extension of my arms, and probably a savior of my back, even though I loved the little feet I’d bought to cover the noisy metal tips. I let them go. Not that I gave up: once we checked into the hotel, the proprietor was very happy to help me call the RENFE and register the loss in their records, just in case. The next day I visited the lost and found at the terminus, the same station where we’d board our train to Paris. There was no sign of them. They are in someone else’s hands now, but hopefully helping them to walk as well as they guided me.

I wasn’t paying attention. That’s when you miss things. But hadn’t I seen that coming?

~ ~ ~

Word passes on the Camino without texts or emails. The weaving that happens as you walk puts you in touch with different people over the course of a day. You might walk with someone for fifteen minutes and then pull ahead, only to run into them again a few hours later when you’d stopped for a rest at a village cafe. Or someone you hadn’t seen for days would somehow get in step with you again. In the meantime, they’ve walked and talked with others, and if there is news to share, it gets passed along. After Burgos, there was a rumor about someone who’d gone to sleep in the albergue there and hadn’t woken up. This wasn’t the first death I’d heard about during my walk: a 65-year old man had a heart attack on his very first day, going over the Pyrenees. The story told was his wife had died the year before, his Camino was meant to help him sort through it. Nobody I spoke with felt too terrible about it. “Perhaps he’d joined her,” they said, or “it’s not a bad way to go, walking the Camino.”

The amazing night I stayed in the Ermita de San Nicolas, after our feet were washed and our dinner was finished, my friend from Romania turned to me and asked if I’d heard about the man who died in Burgos. “You knew him,” she said, “I saw you talking to him.” She described him, but I couldn’t place him. She kept saying his name, but it didn’t register. “Yes, you knew him,” she insisted, “Mark, Mark from Michigan.”

I fell silent then, thinking about the lyrics in the song I’d sung to him, remembering our very brief exchange. Did I see that coming? Was it just another coincidence? That day, the day I shared his olives, I must have been paying attention to something.

If there is a heaven – and I’m not always sure of it – but if there is, I hope he’s there. I hope he’s met up with Dilts, who can sing him the other half of the duet. And if he is waiting for me there, well, I hope he knows I’m not in a rush.


Jun 4 2012

Trust the Road

20120604-183830.jpgThe long stone building stood adjacent to the Camino, like a ancient fortress, or a chapel – or both – offering protection to passing pilgrims for centuries. Inside, the cool air refreshed and inspired a mood of tranquility, a pause from the endless step-after-step of the road. Two men welcomed passers-by with gentle Italian accents, offering a bench to sit on, a break from the hot sun, cool water to drink and a tap to refill water bottles. I marveled at the nearly medieval setting: the vaulted ceiling like a church, the small, narrow windows set up high like a fortress, the furnishings like noble dining room. At one end, a rounded chapel, with religious images and artifacts of the Camino. At the other, bunk beds in a row against the wall. I’d read about this albergue in the guidebook I’ve been carrying by John Brierley, a mix of practical and mystical tips for walking the Camino de Santiago. The Ermita de San Nicolas is a small way station, without electricity and with only 12 beds. Brierley wrote that and if you can get a place on a mattress here you should consider yourself lucky.

It was just before noon. I’d walked since 6:30 am but with more breaks than usual, covering about 18 kilometers, less than the usual daily distance, which might range between 22 and 29k. I was in good form, though, not yet ready to stop for the day. I rested there for a while, just to take advantage of the ambiance, but before long I stood up, grabbed my walking sticks from against the wall and took to the road.

Just beyond the albergue, a stone bridge crossed the rio Pisuerga and I stopped midway and looked back. I wanted to keep walking, but there was something back there, something calling me, an opportunity to stop for an afternoon in the quiet and reflect, the serenity of the setting, the experience it might hold for me. I mulled this over for at least ten minutes, standing there on that bridge.
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A German woman, crossing the bridge, stopped to talk with me. I told her my dilemma. “If you are torn, then go back,” she said. “I stayed there when I did the Camino before, and it was a special night.”

That was all I needed, a slight nudge to break the equality of my options. I turned and walked back, against the traffic of pilgrims. Remarkably, in that 50-meter stretch, I met several friends I’d made over the last days. An American couple I’d bunked beside at the albergue in the one-horse town – literally, it had one church, one bar/restaurant, one funky but cozy albergue – of San Juan de Ortega. Just behind them, two Spanish guys who called themselves my dos Sanchos, after Don Quixote‘s sidekick, with whom I’d had a long, late lunch the day before in Hontanas, and then a picnic that same night when the older Sancho‘s wife and daughter showed up, like a pit crew, with a huge feast, an impressive spread of homemade tortilla, fried pig’s chin (very tasty), and an array of salads and bread and wine we shared from a wineskin pouch. The younger Sancho, whose wife will bring his horses to Leon so he can finish the Camino on horseback, urged me to go on with them, offering the promise of another pleasant lunch together. But I knew – and I was literally walking against the tide of pilgrims – that I needed to stay in this remote, roadside station. I waved goodbye to all these fellow walkers, such fast friends we’d become in such a short span of time, and retraced my steps to the albergue, presenting myself to Augusto, whom I’d spoken with before, asking him if it was too early to request a place in the ermita that night.

Yo te visto,” he said. He’d seen me stop and ponder my decision on the bridge. He took my backpack from me and carried it into the building, even though it was earlier than the usual hour for accepting boarders.
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I sat at the table while he explained the rules and procedures, nothing unusual from any other albergue I’d stayed at, except here there was no fee, only a donation if I was able to contribute. Because it was so early in the day and I was the first pilgrim to ask to stay, I had a very private shower, despite the communal bathrooms in the back, and washed all my clothes in a big basin and hung them on the line next to the red flannel mattress covers that were flapping in the wind, drying after being washed after the previous night’s pilgrims. I’d noticed them hanging on the line when I approached, they reminded me of my mother’s sheets. I longed to help fold them, but I’d learned right away – when I’d offered to help – that the guests were not to do any work at the albergue.

“A pilgrim’s work is to walk and reflect,” Augusto said. “Our work is to feed you and give you a place to wash and sleep.”

I spent the afternoon writing, reading and resting. I sat in front of the building, watching pilgrims come down the road and peek in. You could see they were impressed with its mystical quality but also intimidated by its solace and simplicity. But by the end of the afternoon, 11 of the 12 cots were filled. The last person to walk down the road, with the absolute intention of finishing her day here, the Romanian woman whose wisdom I wrote about in my last post. Our hug was fierce, we had not seen each other since we had that conversation on the trail, days before.

At 7:30 pm, our hosts rang a bell and escorted us to the rounded chapel-like end of the long room. Twelve chairs were arranged in a semi-circle. The two Italian men donned shoulder-length brown capes with large scallop shells attached, the symbolic uniform of their confraternity. They talked about the privilege of being in service to pilgrims, a long winded explanation in Italian – there were six Italian speakers staying that night – and shorter translations in English and Spanish. To symbolize this service, they produced a metal basin with a pitcher of water, and one by one, washed our feet. The gesture surprised and moved each one of us. We were then invited to be seated at the table, set for our dinner, lit only by candles. A huge bowl of pasta with red sauce – prepared on a gas stove since was no electricity in the albergue – was placed at each setting. As much as I love Spanish food with its eggs and pimentos and potatoes, the pasta was a nice change, served with a generous amount of imported parmesan. The red wine was plentiful, second helpings thrust upon us, good conversation and laughter, a hearty meal for belly and the spirit.

As the sun set, we prepared for bed. When the last pilgrim crawled into a bunk, Augusto blew out the one candle still burning. I did not move again until the morning, when the noise of breakfast-in-preparation woke me gently and I rose for a cafe con leche and bread and Nutella, before setting off again, slightly sad to leave but thoroughly composed, light-footed, ready to walk.

~ ~ ~

Last week, on my return trip to the Camino, I was at the bus station with an hour to kill between transfers, so I combed through my guidebooks and sketched out how I might walk over the next days. I calculated distances for each day and made reservations at charming little hotels and casas rurales, mapping out a very nifty little plan.

I have cancelled all but one of those reservations.

Each day, I’d realize that I wanted to stop sooner because a town had a certain charm, or I’d want to go further because I had the stamina to keep walking. I’d call to cancel my reservation with an apology, and I’d always find some other perfect place to sleep, in a room with a dozen others or by myself, it was always the right choice.
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I think it took me this long to surrender to the Camino. Plans are nice to have, but on this path they are unnecessary, or even burdensome. I finally learned to trust, fully, that wherever I end up, it will be the right place, that there always a shower, a meal and a bed. A Dutch man, doing the Camino on his bicycle, told me how he rode into a small town one evening and there were no beds available at any hotel or albergue. A local family took him in their guest room.

So I start off each morning with an idea of where I might want to end up, but otherwise let my feet tell me when to stop, or when to keep going. One day I walked 37k because it felt so good to be moving. The scenery is beautiful and I am fully aware of it – I am part of it. I wish I could live my life this way, trusting the road so fully, not trying to plan or control it, but just to be on it. Of course, I should mention that it took some clever planning to clear the decks so I could do the Camino. There’s the rub.

I was musing about all this when I came upon a small cafe-bar, deciding to stop off for a lemonade. There was an open wifi network there, so I checked my email. I was so immersed in the messages from home that I hardly noticed the four sloppy-drunk men at the bar, until one of them came over and pretended to be reading over my shoulder. I knew how to handle it: playfully rebuffing him at first, then, when that didn’t work, making a fiercer boundary until he left me alone. I managed it without a big fuss, but it interrupted my mood. I guess sometimes you can’t trust the road, at least not completely.
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But I want to. I want take this trust back home with me. I want to transmit it to Short-pants and Buddy-roo, this feeling of having faith in whatever unfolds, making the best of what is, realizing that among all the choices you have in any given moment, most of them will be exactly the right choice, if you show up for it fully committed. But I also want to help them understand when not to trust so fully what the road brings, how to set your own course, how to draw boundaries, how to protect your open, tender, heart while taking on four drunk men in a bar. Or how to trust the clarity of your own voice amidst the cacophony of others crowded around you. I want them to be able to trust the road, but also to know when to trust themselves instead.

It has taken me 18 days of walking and 400 kilometers – that’s 250 miles – to slow down enough to hear my own voice, let alone to trust it. I’m just over halfway to Santiago, and in a few days I’ll have to head home, and leave the rest of the Camino for another time, next fall or next year. I don’t know what’s going to happen when I go back to the day-to-day of my life, to the bombardment of information, obligations and responsibility. Can I stay in this cool Camino groove? Can I bring its rhythmic calm back with me? Can I trust myself – and the road – and keep walking the walk?


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.