Reverse Camino Day 9: Aguapesada to Santiago

After walking four days from the Atlantic, I finally arrive in Santiago. But I’ve been walking much longer than that.

Total distance on foot: 12.3 km/7.6 mi (plus three years)
Towns traveled through: Alto de Vento, Quintáns
This day in 2013: Day 40 Santiago to Negreira

Now I walk alone, I told him.

The helpful man saw me weeping and looking lost fifteen minutes ago in a park outside Santiago de Compostela. I show you, he said. Grateful, I followed this speed-walking, parka-wearing pilgrim with the thick accent through the busy streets toward the cathedral.

 *   *   *

I’ve been walking eastward from the Atlantic toward this city over the last four days, but in reality, it’s been much, much longer.

In the time since I was last here, I returned home, emotionally naked as a newborn, to discover my life no longer fit. There’s no way to count the miles through an unending dark night of the soul. How do you measure facing your deepest fears and ultimately finding the will to live in spite of them?

Eventually, I committed to traveling that road out the darkness. Of learning to tell the whole truth, not just the diplomatic one. Of understanding the deep attachment I felt to Meg, my joyous pilgrim sister. Of deciding whether to stay in my marriage. Of learning that walking outdoors is my salvation and that opening my heart—even when it feels terrifying—is the only way to survive this condition called being human.

It took me all this time to learn how to live an undivided life. If the true Camino starts in Santiago, as they say, the last three years have borne it out; I have been a pilgrim ever since. One step at a time.

 *   *   *

Although I’m hoping to arrive in time for the noon mass, I take it as it comes. I’m only ever 60% sure I’m going the right way, but up I go through little cobbled villages of quiet, cobbled houses. Past the quiet dude inexplicably carrying an inflatable giraffe head. Past the funny, flirtatious Puerto Rican man from Queens. Past the inquisitive, sixty-something lady from Queensland who says there’s a party in Santiago. Up a hill, stopping for a bar’s strong coffee and blaring news. One foot in front of the other.

In a quiet suburban neighborhood, I chat with a local guy about the direction of Santiago as a cat rubs against his black slacks. He points into the morning sun and says, Down the road then to the right en el bosque. Through moss-covered trees, the bright sunlight streams into my eyes.

Then, at last, in a clearing at the top of a hill, I see it: the cathedral. There it is! My eyes well up, and a grin spreads across my face. The emotion spills over I continue walking, as I have all these years, to that distant place where the real pilgrimage began.

*   *   *

My fast-walking, helper-guy stops to chat with a friend, but I continue, feeling as though pulled toward the square where all pilgrims arrive. When he catches up with me, I’m almost there. Gracias, I say. Thank you for helping me. Now I must continue alone.

He nods knowingly and gives me a friendly pat.

Up the steep street, I see the cathedral from the top down—first the spires, then the facade, the doors, and the double symmetrical stairs—and finally I arrive at the plaza, overwhelmed by emotion. Here is where it all started. Here is where I felt happier than anywhere else on the planet. Where I arrived with dear Scott and Gary. Where I met Meg. Where I realized who I really am.

My hands are shaking. My knees feel wobbly. Here I am. At last. Collapsing onto the cobbles of the cathedral plaza, I’m overcome with gratitude and relief and joy. I lean forward, sobbing, my butt in the air, elbows and knees on the cold ground. I don’t care that my pack is still on or that dozens of sight-seers might witness my body shaking with sobs. I’m here. I’m here at last. I’m so grateful. For everything.

Finally, when I sit up and wipe my eyes, I lift my chin to see the clear blue sky and silhouetted spires, grinning madly. Oh my God, I’m here. It’s so beautiful! I recall the last arrival and the hugs and tears I shared with Gary. My spirit is bursting.

I notice a well-dressed woman approaching me, bowing slightly. Hand on her heart, she says in an Irish accent, I was so moved to see you arrive. The pin on her lapel is a tiny gold angel. Reaching down to touch my shoulder tenderly, she smiles at me. I smile back at her, grateful but speechless.

You must have walked a long way, she says.

Sometimes all we need is to be seen. This Camino angel blesses me with her acknowledgement. The truth in her words make the tears start all over again.

I have walked a long way. I really have, I reply. And it was worth every step.

Reverse Camino Day 8: Vilaserio to Castelo (part 2)

Hours of solitary walking later, I stop at a cafe in Negreira to order coffee and a bocadillo sandwich to go.

Sipping my coffee at an outdoor table, a young man approaches. We haven’t exchanged a word, I already like him. A few days from his last shave, he has deep tan skin and short, curly locks. We smile warmly at each other, and I say, “Hola, buenas dias!”

He greets me in Spanish and, situating his bicycle, asks me where I’m from.

Los estados unidos,” I reply.

He’s amazed that an American can speak anything but English. “And so well!”

I laugh. “Gracias.”

“I’m Rafael.” From Cuba. “Like the archangel,” he says, smiling. He is one of those people with whom I immediately feel a deep connection. He radiates love.

Rafael sits with me for a short but animated, open-hearted conversation about our respective journeys, where we’ve been, where we’re going, and why. He’s traveling without a map, so I show him mine so he can going off the Camino to visit a stunning, secret waterfall further down the Galician coast. It’s not the words we exchange, it’s the love.

“What a beautiful soul you are,” he says, eyes boring into mine. He speaks the truth. We see each other.

They say you can tell whether you’ve been visited by an angel or a demon by how you feel when they leave your presence. After we exchange emails and hug goodbye, I’m glowing.

Rafael, in case you didn’t know, is the archangel of healing.

*   *   *

The thing with liminality is that you can glimpse it, but it’s fleeting. We’re not meant to live in that rarefied space all the time.

The rest of the day is unexceptional, bordering on challenging. In fact, I can’t even find my way out of Negreira. After countless backtracks and asking for direction, it still won’t release me from its clutches. I note that nothing in me wants to stop and just get a bed here for the night. Meg and I stayed here last time, and I can’t do it. I’ve got to keep going, break the pattern, and get as close to Santiago today as possible.

For all my effort, I’m eventually rewarded with a smooth trail along a river and friendly pilgrims who point the way as my fatigue grows. Then, I take one single turn, and I’m completely lost. I merely ascend from the riverbanks to the street by a sandy trail, and the arrows disappear. My map shows the bridge that’s directly ahead of me, but something isn’t right. I’m tired, I think to myself, but I can do this.

Crossing the long concrete bridge, I remember nothing about this place from the last time. There’s a bar at the end, so I stop there to ask a local if I’m on the Camino. He addresses me in slurred Galician, a mixture of twang and boiled octopus. I comprehend only his pointing gestures first to the west and then north along the street. Neither of these options seems right.

I’ve got to get back on the Camino. Muttering to myself and staring at my guidebook, I proceed on the north option he indicated along a quiet rural road. No arrows for at least a half mile. After ten minutes, I pass a house whose occupant stares at me as I pass. This can’t be right. Panicky nausea sets in. Two more steps, and I turn around to head back to the bar by the bridge. The old Galician guy is still standing out there, watching my slow return. I can’t ask him again. It’s useless. I just can’t.

So I attempt the other way he suggested, going about three blocks uphill near a school, but there’s no one else around to ask. No arrows. No cairns. This isn’t right either. I stare at my useless map. Tired, hungry, and all options eliminated, I don’t know what to do.

Against my better judgment, I go back to the bar. The guy is gone now. When I walk in, the stools are filled with no less than nine older men, all of whom turn to stare at me without saying a word. Either I’m an oddity or completely unwelcome, but feel intimidated. I fight the urge to run and instead ask the bartender for an orange soda. He serves me the drink, I pay, and then flee outside to the empty tables.

It’s mid-afternoon now, and I’m truly stuck. Lost. Tired. Miserable. The tears start before I even sit down.

Moments later, I hear a shuffling sound behind me. The bartender gently sets a small plate of bread rounds with a generous assortment of charcuterie. On the house. I look up at him with tear-stained face and choke out a moitas grazas. He hesitates. Does he want to help?

“I’m lost,” I say in Spanish. “Do you know where the Camino is?”

“Oh, uh…” He points to the other end of the bridge from where I’d come, and then to the left. “I think it’s that way, under the bridge.” But I’d already walked from that direction.

“I am going to Santiago. To the east,” I say. My Spanish isn’t good enough to convey more. “I see no arrows.”

“Oh, I think maybe you go under the bridge. To the right.” It’s the only option not tried. I thank him, and he bows slightly and makes his leave.

Sure enough, after a few minutes of walking, I realize he is right. But I’m so weary, and tired from the anxiety and embarrassment, the sense of relief evades me.

Instead I pitch a fuming fit at myself. I was wrong! I made a mistake! I hate making mistakes! Angry tears start falling. I hate that old guy for watching me walking stupidly everywhere and not saying anything. And in the bar they all stared at me without offering any help! I feel like a total idiot. I look like an idiot–especially in front of all those people. My whole life I’ve tried to be perfect, and all I ever do is fail!

This backwards Camino thing is pressing all my buttons. There’s no way I’m going to succeed at perfection, but that doesn’t stop me from trying. It’s what I do. It’s how I am.

A new thought arises: I wonder where the perfection urge comes from in the first place. I’m the older of two, the big sister, the first born. If I got it perfect, no one would get mad. Being good was how I made everyone happy.

What if that’s a lie? What if I don’t have to be perfect?

Suddenly, this truth dawns on me like a shaft of light: Even if I do make mistakes, what if I’m intrinsically okay? Suddenly something deep shifts within me, a muddy, slippery tectonic plate shlunks into its rightful place. I don’t have to be perfect. 

I’m swamped with the relief of releasing this forty-year-old burden. As if I’ve just liberated a massive weight from my pack and left it on the side of the trail.

Walking the Camino is the cheapest, most effective therapy ever.

*   *   *

Of course, about a mile down the path, I cross a cobbled, medieval bridge which I remember with perfect clarity. It’s gorgeous waterfall cascades between an old mill and cute, whitewashed stone houses. Two pilgrims splash in the shallows. I remember this. Of course. I just needed the detour.

*   *   *

I’ve walked way too many miles today than is sane or reasonable. I’m dusty, sweaty, tired, and weary—and I still haven’t arrived yet. A few pilgrims pass me going west, but I don’t want to talk anymore. I just want to get wherever I’m staying tonight. After crossing the bridge, I don’t notice the scenery. My feet ache. Trying to keep the pep in my step and hang in there, it’s all bravado now.

There’s a slog up an interminably inclined street. Its sidewalk is covered in loose bricks and laid out in constantly-changing widths to accommodate trees, , utility holes. I can’t just zone out or I’ll twist my ankle on a slanted driveway entrance. At the top at last, I turn onto a side street, hopeful to find the pension in my book. I’m only a few miles away from Santiago. With no reservations, they may not have room for me.

A block down through an odd, colorful neighborhood, I find signage that matches the address in my book. However, a huge metal gate is drawn across the driveway. Are they closed? Does this mean they’re full? Bravely, I slide it aside as it rattles and set neighborhood dogs to barking. Down the drive to an adorable two story home with a full porch, there are lots of shoes on the step. Oh God, don’t let them be full!

A few anxious minutes after I knock, a wiry, fast-talking man comes to the door and greets me in Spanish. I’m not catching all the words, but I inquire about the prices of the rooms. His reply is so fast, but I only hear the word “no” before concluding they’re full. I’m out of luck for the night. Now I have to find another place. I’m crushed.

“Do you know if there are other albergues nearby?” I manage ask as my voice warbles with emotion. A tear escapes without my permission.

Siii…” he says cautiously, like there’s a question mark at the end. “I need to look up the number.”

I need water. I can’t believe I’m being so forward, but I ask him for a glass. If I have to keep walking to Santiago, I’ll need it on this hot afternoon. While he’s gone, I try to pull myself together. I can do this.

Returning, he hands me the cool glass and asks gently, “Pardon me, but why do you not want to stay here?”

“I want to, but you say there are no rooms.”

Si, there are!” I’d misunderstood him. I laugh as another tear leaks out. God, I’m so tired.

“Oh! I don’t understand! I think there are no beds! I’m sorry!” Saying this makes me realize that I’ve got to work on my verb tenses.

My host settles me into a beautiful, quiet private bedroom with a separate bath. After a restorative shower and a batch of laundry, I sit in the back orchard in a comfy chair, enjoying the scenery of the hills I’ve climbed and descended.

I sit and write in my journal to recount the day and take stock.

I’m nearly crawling out of my skin not being able to contact Mary. It’s been four days. I’m afraid that she’s afraid. Maybe I should just accept what is.

I feel nervous about Santiago tomorrow. So much there. Not sure where to stay. Do I go back to the albergue where everything started? If I don’t, will I regret it? My sense is to go there. To trust. See what comes up. 

I’ve returned here for gratitude for the changes in my life, to reclaim my soul, and walk my whole self home. But I also remember how I fell apart after my first Camino, how I struggled for so long to integrate its lessons. I’m afraid. I don’t know if I can stand the test of arriving, of remembering, of being completely undone a second time.

There’s only one way to find out. After today’s revelations, maybe I’m more ready than ever.

Reverse Camino Day 8: Vilaserio to Castelo (part 1)

The soul should always stand ajar, ready to welcome the ecstatic experience. ~ Emily Dickinson

Total distance on foot: 15.2 mi / 24.6km
Towns traveled through: Cornado, Santa Mariña, Olvieroa, Negreira, Aguapesada
This day in 2013: Day 41 Negreira to Santa Mariña

First thing in the morning, the same condescending barista that checked me in last night is at the counter again. After a good night’s sleep, and no longer exhausted and weary from walking, I feel a desire to connect and discover her better nature, if she has one.

Approaching the bar, I glance at my watch and ask her, “Did you even sleep?” I see you. I see you working here night and day. 

A light sparks in her eyes. “Yesss…” A grin spreads across her face.

“It must be difficult working so many hours.” All that repetition, all those revolving pilgrims everyday.

“No, not too difficult,” she says, her body square with mine. Yesterday she talked with her back to me. “I am from here, in this village, and I am lucky to have a job,” she adds with softness.

There isn’t an ounce of impatience in her voice now. We’ve made a real connection, however momentary. Maybe we all just need someone to see us for who we are, to meet us where we are and just listen.

While she makes my café americano I ask, “Have you walked the Camino?”

“No,” she replies flatly. “I don’t like walking.”

“Me either.”

Surprised, she looks at me. “No? Then why are you walking?”

“I had to. I felt called to. I walked it three years ago, and it changed my life. Now I’m walking in reverse for gratitude.”

“Again?” Her slight frown shows I’ve given her something to think about. There’s something amazing about this pilgrimage. Maybe she’ll discover one day.

*   *   *

I am walking for gratitude, it’s true. But another part of my reason for returning to Spain to “go backwards” is to connect with the Divine. Emily Dickinson once wrote, “The soul should always stand ajar, ready to welcome the ecstatic experience.” On my first Camino, I had several encounters with something vast and loving and far wiser than I. And, for whatever reason, those experiences don’t happen as often or as intensely in my everyday life.

So I’m back.

I suspect that many pilgrims have similar moments of pure peace, deep understanding, and euphoric joy. However, as I’ve read pilgrims’ numerous narratives about the Camino, I note with frustration how many skirt around describing those very ecstatic moments Emily Dickinson mentions. While we’re walking out there, our soul is open. One moment, you’re walking on the solid ground and, the next, something transcendent happens. What is that—and why don’t we find words to express it?

One reason I want to avoid describing these experiences is because they defy logic. Spiritual encounters don’t stand up to rigorous scrutiny—nor should they, perhaps. I just note with some humor that I’d prefer to reference science and data to support my theories.

The other reason is that I don’t want you to think I’m nuts, dear reader, and want to avoid being subject to your skepticism. However, in spite of these, I know firsthand that the Divine speaks—through messages, coincidences, through people and myriad creative channels. It wants to connect. I can’t say for certain what these encounters mean—except perhaps to confirm we’re not alone—but trusting them has led to wonderful changes in my life. Perhaps my retelling will inspire you to trust in your own experiences of the Divine, no matter how illogical, and inspire the healing and change you seek.

*   *   *

Years ago, when I began my own journey of emotional and spiritual growth, I awoke one sunny morning with a very real sense that I had a wing coming from my right shoulder. It was more like a nub, really, a radiant little bump on my scapula with the potential to be more. At this astonishing realization, I frowned and thought, What the heck? It’s not every day that one hallucinates a new appendage. Yet there was a rightness about it, not scary, but merely perplexing and completely out of my life’s experience. Huh… I have a kind of wing thing back there. And then I went on with my life.

A year later, I saw an angel intuitive (coincidentally also a fellow peregrina) who validated this awareness as a good omen from the Powers That Be. She encouraged me to trust it and be open to messages. In the time since then, especially when I’m feeling really open and joyful, I wake with the sensation that this energetic wing is still there, changing, growing in to a tiny fan of white feathers.

What the heck, right?

Whatever this sensation is, it feels like a sign about who I really am. Maybe we all have a secret truer self than we believe is logically possible. A gift. A superpower. A wordless connection with the Divine. Anyway, in the midst of daily living, they’re easy to overlook or brush off. It doesn’t mean you’re not a living miracle.

*   *   *

When I left Finisterre three years ago, it felt like ripping two vital parts of myself apart. While transporting my body back home to Oregon, my heart protested, saying over and over I’m not ready! A message I ignored. What else could I do but go home? However—and this is important—although I physically left Spain, my soul stayed rooted out on the rocks of Finisterre. In the intervening years of this painful split, I created a life my soul would want to return to.

Now, after three years’ absence, returning again to this place is emotional. A profound relief.

To finally stand on those rocks again is to know wholeness at last. I have retrieved what I lost. With no lost parts, no lingering questions, no division, everything in me feels united—body, mind, heart, soul.

Now I would walk my whole, holy self home.

*   *   *

This morning, walking with this inner wholeness, I feel amazing. Galicia is her stunning self. The early golden sunlight glows through the spring-green leaves of trees. Shadows and light play across the path through tunnels of moss-covered stones. How stunningly beautiful and magical everything is that I  stop walking just to absorb it, to really take it in. I don’t care that pilgrims stare at me in wonder. I am in love with the world, the glittering streams, the distant sunlit hills, and the whispery eucalyptus forests.

In the middle of this fragrant woods, I recognize a little dirt slope to my right with a small hole dug into it. It’s still there. Three years ago, Meg spotted a nest of bumblebees here in this very spot. We stopped and stared at them with delight as they bumbled along their happy comings and goings. Marveling.

I grin at the memory, overflowing with joy. Suddenly, I’m awash in memories of my stunned attraction to her and the bolt of energetic lightning that went through me in her presence in Santiago.

My soul opens to the ecstatic experience. As I walk, I feel taller, almost regal. Then, natural as anything, two gorgeous white wings unfold behind me, like they’ve been tucked up and waiting for the right moment to unfurl. The astonishing sensation of their feathered weight is accompanied by a sense of rightness. No more nubs and half-wings. There they are.

What Meg showed me, I now feel to the center of my being. It’s not just part of me anymore—something to be brushed off or tolerated—it is me. I am it.

I walk on toward Santiago, illuminated from the inside out.

Reverse Camino Day 7: O Logoso to Vilaserio

Annoying the Germans, getting lost, and trying to live with an open heart

Total distance on foot: 15.2 mi / 24.6km
Towns traveled through: Olveiroa, A Picota, Maroñas
This day in 2013: Day 42 Part 1 and Day 42 Part 2

I’m annoying the crap out of the Germans. No. Let me correct that. It’s mutual.

Yesterday, the first pilgrim I encountered in the morning was a tall German striding like he was making a dash for the finish line. As he passed, he looked at me and sternly said, “Wrong way.” No smile. Nothing.

What the…? I was shocked.

Then this morning, a German woman stops in her tracks to interrogate me. “What are you doing?”

“I’m walking back to France,” I reply.

“The Camino isn’t set up to walk backwards,” she informs me. Her insistence provokes instant ire. Seriously? 

She is mid-rant about how I’m doing this incorrectly when I interrupt her to say, “In the past, Santiago was halfway. I’ve already walked it once, so now I’m finishing.” Then, annoyed, I continue walking and say over my shoulder, “Buen Camino!”

I don’t mean it. Judge me if you will, but I could easily have substituted a swear.

This is really pissing me off. I’m clearly succeeding at the thing they insist is incorrect and not possible. Do they say it just to be right? To show they’re superior? What gives someone the right to comment on my path, anyway? It must have something to do with the German sense of order and discipline.

Whatever the reason, I’m not amused. I’ve worked too hard to overcome perfectionism to let myself be judged by a total stranger. If it keeps happening, I don’t know what I’m going to do. It is seriously infuriating.

*

I’m having breakfast and my first cup of coffee when the hospitalera introduces me to an huge group of Spanish pilgrim cyclists. She says proudly, “This americana stayed at my albergue three years ago! I taught her to say ‘thanks very much’ in Galician—and you know what? She remembered how to say it!” My host beams and says, “Go ahead!” The whole group of cyclists swivels their heads toward me.

I’m still sleepy and now crimson-faced from flattered embarrassment, but I manage to say, “Moitas grazas!

A few ohhhs come from the cyclists, and I grin at them. Then I recognize a few! They’re the guys I met in front of Ruby’s hotel in Finisterre the day before. The one guy who teased me about speaking English bids me a good morning (perhaps I’ve redeemed myself?). I feel happy to see familiar faces.

Before I leave, I give the hospitalera a big hug and a final moitas grazas. She says, “Visit us again in three more years—and bring your esposo!”

*

Five minutes down the road, still grinning, I remember my walking sticks and go back to retrieve them. Then I’m out again on my own in the cool morning air for a long day’s walk. I can hear the whooshing hum of a dozen windmills lined up along the distant hill. Birds are singing in the sunlit forest. The sound of running water from an invisible creek gurgles through the trees. The road is flat and well-graded so each footstep crunches as I walk. I’m lost, then not lost. Confident, then uncertain of the way. I remember being here. Then I forget. Am I on the way? Was I here? Ah, now I remember.

This is what it’s like to walk the Camino backwards. I’m living in past and present all at once.

Before long, I hit the steep hill where Meg and I collected gorgeous blue-green rocks and—same as yesterday—I start bawling, just wordless uncontrollable sobbing. I miss her. It’s something deeper too. As I ascend this hill, the past is shedding like bits of dry skin behind me. My old, constricted way of living is sloughing off.

I miss living with my heart open.

When I came back from Spain three years ago, I resolved to change my life. Full of grand plans, I was going to see friends more often and connect more meaningfully. I was going to change my livelihood and start doing what I loved. Exercise was going to be a regular part of my life as a result of rediscovering how much I loved being outdoors.

But since that time, I’ve slowly shut down. I’ve become increasingly isolated from caring friendships, still not doing work I love, and struggling to show my true self to the world. Instead, I distract myself with screen time and swap my authentic self for the presentable, PC version I think everyone wants to see.

Change is hard.

It’s not that I’m back to square one. My marriage is renewed in a way I didn’t dream was possible, and maybe I am closer to doing more satisfying work. I just see a huge chasm between where I am and where I want to be. Walking on this very terrain reminds me that I’ve settled for less since I was here last. Walking over the land where I admitted aloud to understanding, supportive Meg what I really want in life brings it all back. I can’t pretend here. I remember. I want more.

As pilgrims pass me downhill, I try to look fine. I sniffle, but grin at them. I wipe my eyes, but say buen camino. There is more grieving to do, but I set it aside. Sometimes you have to just watch yourself make the same choices over and over again until you change them for good.

*

Fortunately, I have time to sort it out. I have weeks of walking ahead of me.

In the meantime, I notice as I walk that the whole region is in full-on springtime soil-preparation mode. Huge agricultural machines are out in force—tilling, spraying manure, dusting with lime, and filling the valleys with the sounds of growling diesel engines. Later in the day, the path is more level and for a half hour or more, I can survey the machines’ progress as I approach. Occasionally, I wave to a passing farmer. In the distance, I spot a lone pilgrim far ahead who–like me–is also walking east toward Santiago!

At one point, I get completely lost up on a hill above dairy country. About 100 feet back I saw a huge white sign stating in Spanish this is an alternate route of the Camino. Tracking helps me determine whether I’m on the trail, but I see no stick marks, no pilgrims ahead, and no sign of boot prints in the mud. The good news is being lost gives me privacy to go poo—which I desperately need to do—and successfully dig a cat hole in the soft soil.

Once relieved, I take stock: I’m lost, but not panicky. I know my way back, even if I don’t know the way forward. I’m okay, I reassure myself. Just retrace your steps.

As I stare at my map, I realize this is the exact same place that Meg and I got lost three years ago. I can even see the dairy and farm below where we sat and watched the cows rounded up by a woman on a moped. How uncanny to be lost in the same place. Is there a vortex here? Or some Galicia magic? I wonder if I’ll meet a witch on the way.

Maybe the Camino isn’t set up to be walked in reverse, but it can be done. At the white sign, I realize I just missed the turn and am on my way again.

*

The last few miles of the day seem interminably long as my body aches from walking on pavement. As I stop to fill my water bottle at a community fountain, the east-walking pilgrim appears beside me! I gather up my pack as he fills his bottle, and we are ready to depart at the same time.

Gesturing with his arms in a sweeping motion toward the path, he says, “Ladies first” in an unmistakable accent.

“No, no. After you,” I grin.

“Shall we walk togezzah?”

“I would love that,” I say.  Yes, Heinrich is German. He is kind and curious, though embarrassed by his English skills. We’re headed to the same albergue. How novel to have a walking companion for the final two miles!

*

As many times as I’ve lived it, I always forget what a touchy mood I’m in when I arrive at an albergue feeling tired, hot, and hungry. Today is no different. I’m immediately offended that the barista insists on speaking English (insinuating that my Spanish isn’t good enough). She’s abrupt and terse. There are a litany of rules.

  • No using the clothes dryer if you hand wash.
  • No hanging clothes in the laundry room.
  • No hanging clothes from your bunk.

Do they not care that we’ll walk around sopping wet tomorrow?

When I get a snack at the restaurant, the barista hovers and whisks away my plates before I’m done. Later, she sneers at me with disdain when I tell her the coin-op computer isn’t working. I’ve been anxious all day that I haven’t sent Mary an email in three days and hope she’s not worried. Anyway, I’m told there’s no fix for the computer. The reception here couldn’t make me feel less welcome.

*

The upside is that after laundry and a shower, Heinrich and I join another man in the bar where the three of us have dinner together. Despite my walking alone, I have actual dinner companions. In an additional twist of irony, Ralph is also from Germany. He is great company, speaks English flawlessly, and tells great stories throughout the meal. He’s a hoot. My spirits lift.

So I take back what I’ve said about Germans. They were my saving grace tonight.

Maybe my heart is more open than I realized.

Reverse Camino Day 6: Cee to O Logoso

A day of emotions, imaginary friends, and a heartwarming reunion

Total distance on foot: 10.7 mi / 17.2km
Towns traveled through: Hospital
This day in 2013: Day 43

I’m going to be frank: it’s emotional to be back here. One minute I’m okay, the next moment I’m in tears. Unsettled. Open. For someone with a lifetime of practice being “fine” (or at least acting that way), these unpredictable waves of emotion are both cathartic and unnerving.

Taped to today’s journal page is a note from my 13-year-old niece,

“It doesn’t matter how slow you go as long as you don’t stop.”

Seeing this wise message in her fanciful, multi-colored handwriting makes me teary. Walking backwards is slow. Arrows are confusing. Backtracking burns up minutes and miles. People stopping to question my motives jars me. It hardly seems linear.

The same holds true for inner journeys. Letting go and acceptance are astoundingly slow-going work. Have you ever noticed how, after committing to letting go of a habit or a person, you catch yourself grasping again with white-knuckled fingers, trying squeeze out what it can never provide? Oh, we say, taking a deep breath. I can let this go. And we choose to release it again… and grasp again… and release again… until something truly shifts.

This work is slow, but it’s the process. And so important not to stop.

*   *   *

My primary challenge of the day is to make the steep, three-mile climb outside of Cee to a point almost nine hundred feet above me. I’ve been dreading it. Anticipation of this hill has kept me awake at night—sweating and anxious in a dark cocoon of blankets—for weeks.

Out in the cold morning air, now the sun rises over my right shoulder. A mile in, I’m gasping for breath from the exertion, but keeping at it. My heavy breathing turns into ragged sobs, and I don’t stop. I just give in to the waves of emotion as I continue to climb.

Meg. She was here with me three years ago. The landmarks we once passed and the memories approach then fall behind me, one at a time. Thank you. Somehow as I walk, the way in which my soul had entwined with hers is slowly untwisting.

*   *   *

At the top, the path is a gravel track through high, open fields of gorse and newly-planted young eucalyptus trees. For the next five hours, there isn’t a single café, farm, or home. Although this isolation is what I need, it’s tinged with nerves. I’m still not confident about finding my way. As I walk, I hear only the wind and the sound of my breathing.

The view from here is stunning, and I pause periodically to look back at the Atlantic. When Meg and I were here last, we mistook distant, heavy clouds for another line of mountains. Now I can see all the way to the tiny lighthouse in Finisterre. Several more times, I glance back before the view disappears for good.

The sense of Meg being with me is at times palpable. I miss you, I say into the air as the tears flow again. Thank you. Thank you for walking with me and helping me discover how happy I could be. Thank you for witnessing and accepting me for who I really am.

Finally, I tell her the rest of the story.

All my life, I’ve tried to stay as small as possible and not make waves… but this meant living a divided life. People only knew the self I showed the world, but not the authentic person I feared others would find unacceptable. But, Meg, you taught me that I didn’t have to be divided. You with your quick wit and sarcasm and potty mouth. You just didn’t care what anyone thought of you… and I’ve always cared too much. You made me laugh and loosen up. God, it was so fun to laugh with you.

I’m talking out loud, telling her how things unfolded after we parted and about returning to my less-than-stellar life. My inner judge wants me to shut the hell up, not look like a crazy person. Talking out loud! After all these years, the truth just has to be spoken, even if Meg’s not really here and God is my only witness.

“Imagination and fantasy are both beautiful things,” I say. “Provided they’re not used to escape from living in the physical world. But that is actually what happened for me. I lost myself in fantasies about being with you and in the process lost touch with reality. It was a really dark time. And it took a really long time to find my way again.”

“What I know now is that it was never your job to save me. It would have been a disaster if we’d been together. I believe you showed up to teach me. But I was obsessed with being with you because I wanted to be like you. It took forever for me to finally let go and learn to live with same authenticity I admire so much in you.”

The morning’s first pilgrim appears ahead at a bend in the path. I drop my gesticulating arms and try to look sane. As he passes, his face looks surprised, but he wishes me a buen Camino. As soon as he is out of earshot, I continue talking.

It takes hours to say what happened for me and why everything unfolded the way it did.

“Today, I am just grateful. I have never felt so messed up in the head as I did after the Camino, but it was a turning point in my forty-year existence. Slowly, painfully, I learned how to live an undivided life.”

Now the whole story has been told aloud. Maybe I’ve said it for myself… to the Meg who is actually me.

“Thank you, Meg.”

Thank yourself. I grin. What I admire in her is a part of me.

Thank you, self… For going so far out of your comfort zone in order to be truly happy. Thank you for ignoring advice to just go back to sleep. Thank you for hanging in there through the darkness and for choosing to live. Thank you for coming back here to Spain. It is so beautiful here.

*   *   *

It really is. It’s quiet and woodsy, and the warm sun fills my senses. I walk in silence now—alive and buzzing and cleansed. My thoughts are almost nonexistent. My body like a machine, just taking step after satisfying step.

Eventually, I enter the first village of the day after hours of forest paths. Up along a cobbled, corridor-like street, the cool, deep afternoon shadows draw my eyes to the blue sky. Overhead, I notice an active beehive in the stone wall of a home. Honeybees are a good omen for me.

Here’s where I’ll stay tonight.

*   *   *

Sliding my passport and credencial across the bar for inspection and a stamp, the hospitalera tells me the price for the night and about the pilgrim menu for dinner.

I recognize her face. “I was here three years ago,” I say in Spanish. “You and your friend taught me how to say ‘thank you very much’ in Galician.”

She raises her eyebrows and says, “I did?”

“Yes, I still remember. It’s ‘moitas grazas‘.”

Crinkles form at the corners of her expressive eyes as her face cracks into a smile. “Moitas grazas!” she parrots back. “You remembered! And you returned here again!”

“Yes, I remember your hospitality very well and the fun you have here. This albergue has a special place in my heart.”

She puts down the stamp, walks around the bar, and embraces me warmly, planting a kiss on each cheek. “You remembered!” How could I not? She and her friend repeated ‘moitas grazas‘ with enthusiasm and emphatic hand gestures until Meg and I got the pronunciation just right. I vividly remember the four of us sharing this warm exchange and laughter that morning.

The life of a hospitalero is a constant, daily stream of new faces never to be seen again. I wonder if the fact that I remembered how to say thank you in the local language, the words she taught me, touches her.

“I will teach you more words in Gallego,” she says.

“I’d love that!” I reply.

“Do you have a husband?” This intimate question makes me jump. We don’t ask about marital status in the US until we know someone better—or we ask in a roundabout way, not directly.

“Yes,” I say simply. Spain has legalized gay marriage, but this is a rural place. I decide not to quibble about esposo vs esposa.

“Y niños?”

“No, no children.”

She looks sad for a moment, then says, “It’s too bad you’re married. My cousin has a son about your age. You are learning Gallego and speak Spanish. And we already have an American girl here in the village who is married to my friend’s son.”

I am smiling. This is a stunning conversation. She’s matchmaking with a pilgrim who made the slightest effort in Spanish. I feel loved and highly amused.

“What work does your husband do?” she asks.

I don’t know how to say ‘dental hygienist’ in Spanish, so I say simply, “Es dentista.

“Oooohhh,” she says, then points to me. “Que princesaaaa!” she says, drawing out the last vowel for dramatic effect. A princess.

Simultaneously, I blush and burst out laughing, “Si… princesa.” Spoiled, loved, cherished. That’s me.

Satisfied that I’m well provided for, the hospitalera gives me the option of several rooms, and I choose the tiny, stone one with red accent walls and a skylight. Foreign coins rest on the stones for good luck, perhaps. With only four beds, it should be a quiet night (and it is). I unpack my things, still grinning and giggling to myself about the princesa comment and can’t wait to tell Mary about it.

It was Meg, in fact, who’d asked our hospitalera that morning how to say thank you in Gallego.

At the time, I was agonizing over my unspoken attraction to Meg and whether my commitment to Mary was the right choice. Who would have thought Mary and I were capable of reinventing our relationship? Who could have imagined that the harder choice—staying together—would teach us to expose our well-protected hearts?

Meg’s acceptance showed me how. I eventually found a way to bring this whole authentic, courageous, and vulnerable self into my marriage. It took time. Even now, it’s not always pretty or perfect, but I am one very grateful princesa—I discovered a love I didn’t know was possible.

Moitas grazas to Meg.

*   *   *

It’s an emotional day. But that’s typical on the Camino. There’s a relentlessness to this experience, in the same way that dripping water eventually wears away stone. It can’t not change us. Though challenging, surprising, and difficult at times, the Camino slowly reveals its gifts—as long as the pilgrim doesn’t stop.

Reverse Camino Day 5: Finisterre to Cee

My first day in reverse, attempting to find my way, and the insufferable Australian

Total distance on foot: 8.7mi / 14km
Towns traveled through: Finisterre, Sardiñeiro, Corcubión, Cee
This day in 2013: Day 43-44

What was it like to walk in reverse? That’s what I wanted to know too the morning I left Finisterre behind.

Before I could do this, I had to return Ruby’s bright pink blanket which she’d accidentally left with me the night before. It was still early, the sun barely up and a cool, damp wind blew off the Atlantic into Finisterre’s sleeping streets.

Looking up at her locked hotel, I noticed two men come out of the entrance. As I approached, they held the door open for me, but not without a quick, funny chat in English and Spanish. On my way out, the two men turned into six Spaniards and a young American from Chicago. We gabbed a moment and, as they smoked and laughed, the older Spanish guy complimented me on my English. His humor hinted at my rudeness, but when I’m tired, I’m unable to speak any Spanish or French. I’d offended, but not horribly. They waved me off with a rousing buen Camino!

*

The first thing I did was wander around the familiar town and look for the yellow painted arrows until I was sure I was on the path, but I then doubted myself over and over. The arrows weren’t as frequent as I’d imagined they’d be. Walking along the high road by the beach, I sensed this was the right direction. Without my compass, I couldn’t verify it. Over and over I wondered as I walked, Is this the Camino? Am I on it?  Any hope that I might remember the route from three years ago dissipated quickly.

Along the way, I passed several old men of varying girths out walking their tiny dogs on skinny little leashes. Whether or not I was on the Camino, they didn’t volunteer and I didn’t ask.

Eventually, the road led to a flagstone-and-concrete path just uneven enough to make walking difficult. Memories surfaced of being here with Meg and growing exhausted before we could reach the town. There wasn’t another soul around. I felt every pound in my pack. On one side, the Camino follows the contours of Playa Langosteira, a long, crescent-shaped white sand beach and on the other pine forest. It was so quiet, I felt a little spooked to be alone.

Here I was again, walking the Camino. When would reality start to sink in?

Then the path went up and up to a road in a spacious neighborhood, but I didn’t know where to go. Do I cross? Do I stay along the road? Go back? I stood still for several moments looking at all my options. My guidebook had real maps, but none large enough to show the minute detail I needed. The arrow painted on the asphalt was faded, but once I saw it, it couldn’t be unseen. Cross the road. This went on for hours. The uncertainty. The stopping. The anxiety. The sudden spotting of an arrow or cairn. More tentative forward (backward?) movement.

If I slowed down, took a deep breath, and waited a few moments, it was easier to find my way. This Camino was going to be a turtle’s race, not the hare’s.

*

At times, I did actually recognized the path. A cute little farm with a tall fence, a sweet orchard, and happy chickens in a coop made me smile, just like the first time. What a range of feelings I had three years ago, walking with Meg—scared, sad, torn, afraid of losing my joy forever. Other times laughing with her and feeling so happy. As I retraced my steps on terra firma, images and memories surfaced, returning with clarity and emotion like I had hoped they would. Rather than resist, I let all of it wash over me.

There was a single yet significant moment walking under the magical oak trees, when I sighed with unconscious contentment. In response, my inner voice asked, “Is this all you needed?” Yes. Yes, it is. After scrimping, planning, and anticipating this for so long—just walking—so simple, yet everything I needed.

*

As the day advanced, I encountered interesting characters along the way.

Chloe from Montana said, “Of course there’s an Oregonian walking the Camino backwards!”

Irma from Holland—when I offered her one of my handmade inspiration cards—told me just how perfect the message was for the question she’d been pondering. She teared up. Then she asked a little breathlessly, “Are you an angel?”

A cute young man from NY and a raven-haired dancer from the UK were walking together. We chatted for a bit, and despite the ring on his left hand, he had that wistful look I recognized so well. The end is coming. Are you living the life you want?

At lunch, I sat with a twenty-something guy from Cork and a woman from Germany—both of them employed in law enforcement—who questioned me with increasing intensity about Benghazi. It wasn’t until they left I realized I’d been holding my breath the whole time. Plot twist: the guy paid for my lunch and hugged me goodbye. What was that? 

One German guy went on and on about the daily distances he’d walked the whole journey. Rattling off each day’s mileage as though from a spreadsheet in his mind. Now that he was nearing the end, was he examining how well he’d done? Did he have something to prove? Was he starting to question that this walk might be about more than just distance?

*

In Cee, I was walking along the road as the sun got higher. Even though I’d lost the official Camino, passing the houses with their whitewashed steps and pots full of red geraniums was scenic and pleasant. I was planning to stop here for the night, so I wasn’t stressed about the exact route. You just go all the way around the tiny harbor, then up the hill on the other side. At the top and almost completely out of Cee, I stopped at an albergue for the night. Even though it was only about 2pm.

I’d survived my first day of walking backwards. It wasn’t as bad as I’d feared.

*

If you ever want to connect with locals, show up at a privately-owned albergue just as they open to pilgrims in the early afternoon. As the sole peregrina for almost an hour, Pedro gave me the royal treatment. He let me choose whatever bed I wanted. He offered me beer. He helped me operate the laundry spinner and then re-hung my clothes when the rack blew over.

Later, when I was clean, we chatted for a long while about pilgrimage (he’s done many sections of the Camino himself) and about how it changes your life. How simple it is. How deeply satisfying. His albergue offered complimentary sheets and towels because he’d learned how precious those were as a pilgrim. By late afternoon, we were buddies. I was even translating for Pedro when non-Spanish-speaking pilgrims showed up.

*

Which, I’m sorry to say, made it all the more awful when the Annoying Australian Woman arrived. I should have kept my mouth shut, but she and a friend peeked in trying to decide whether to stay, and I piped up with, “It’s a great albergue! They even have towels!”

Entitled. Demanding. Snappish. For the life of me, I couldn’t understand how someone could have walked the Camino so long and not gotten the message that “the traveler demands, but the pilgrim is grateful.” Over the course of the next few hours, she would interrupt me while I was talking to others, resting, and journaling to say things like, “Tell him I want some food.” and “Why should I have to know how to speak Spanish?” and “You know what kind of hill you have tomorrow?!” (And to think I’d only been worried about that for months.)

I could not shake this grumpy, demanding character. Her friend seemed to have the patience of Job. AAW napped for a while and when she woke, she was a ravenous dragon. She complained to me that there was no restaurant at the albergue, nowhere nearby to eat (except two places she didn’t like the looks of), that the heat-and-eat options available for purchase weren’t her normal preference, and that she couldn’t understand the Spanish directions on the noodle package (this, despite me pointing out the handy picture diagrams, “Oh, I can’t be bothered with that!”).

“Does she want me to make it for her?” Pedro asked me in Spanish. I bristled and didn’t want to translate his question. It’s not his job to be kind to this rare bird! But when I did, she said yes. In astonishment, I watched as he prepared the soup, set the table, and served it to her—and she didn’t thank him. She ignored him like low-life servant!

Later, she complained to me that there was no heat in the albergue, though it wasn’t cold and ample blankets were available. “I don’t know what to tell you,” I said, mustering the last ounce of patience I had.

“Well, you sold me on this place.”

Are you kidding me?? Of all the blaming, victimy, passive aggressive, fill-in-the-freaking-blankety-blanks…

“You know?” I paused to regain my composure. “I’ve had a hard day too. I need you to cut me some slack.”

“Oh. Well, there was another girl who spoke Spanish who told me she wouldn’t translate for me anymore.” And do you wonder what the connection might be??

*

Escaping to the patio in front, I passed Pedro and said in Spanish, “What a pilgrim! I’m so sorry about this woman. You have amazing patience.” He grinned at me, the tiredness visible in his eyes.

I missed home. I missed Mary. I thought of Nancy whose quote was pasted on this day’s journal page, “May flowers spring up where your feet touch the earth. May the feet that walked before you bless your every step.” (Macrina Wierdekehr) Seeing these words made me a little misty. This is the experience I want to be having, not dealing with this demanding snip. Could there be some message here for me?

But then a kind man from Ireland joined me, and we had a great chat about what he’d learned now that his journey was ending… and why I had returned after three years to walk the Camino again. This was more like it. My clothes dried in the breezy sunshine. I wrote in my journal uninterrupted and sipped a glass of wine, feeling grateful for life.

*

In the morning, I stiffened when the Australian woman sat down across from me on the couches as we tied our respective shoelaces. She looked at me in the eye and said, “I hope you have a wonderful Camino. Truly.”

Then she thanked our host.

This proved to me, once again, that you cannot know another person’s heart. No doubt, I was definitely back on the Camino.

A Finisterre finale

Arriving at the end and making a new friend

For all my elation at arriving in Finisterre, I woke up exhausted and grouchy. The echoing marble hallway outside my room amplified the conversations and activities of every guest entering into the wee hours of morning. At six, chipper early birds woke me, and I jumped out of bed, irritated and scowling.

Here’s what I know, though. If sleep deprivation makes me more reactive, it also makes me more open, more sensitive, and more attuned to the world around me. Not getting enough sleep breaks me down in an ultimately good way.

I still have no idea how walking backwards is going to work. I’m nervous about it. But I’m not going anywhere today. I’m staying in Finisterre to visit the old haunts.

Here’s my list:

  1. Get wine and snacks for sunset
  2. Visit the pilgrim office to get my stamp
  3. Send an email home to say I arrived safely
  4. Find a new compass
  5. Walk around the isthmus and visit the beach
  6. Watch the sun set and have a cup of wine

*   *   *

Yes, I’ve come all this way and somehow forgotten my compass. It was just a tiny plastic one with a dial floating in alcohol, but it reassured me that I could get back on track if I got lost. Well, it wasn’t in my pack this morning. I can’t believe I forgot it.

As I walk through the village, I notice a Chinese market. Other pilgrims have told me these eclectic stores are worth a visit.

The tightly-packed shop is full of randomly-organized imports like children’s pajamas, women’s swimsuits, oversize pool towels, pots and pans, assorted packaged food, cheap earrings, gardening supplies, mops, and toys. Squeezing my way to the back, I spy a display with hanging air fresheners, oven thermometers, and—lo and behold—a compass! I pick it up for closer inspection, and discover that instead of north-south-east-west, its directional points are Chinese characters. Dozens of them. What the..? There’s no way I can use this. Even if the arrow technically points north, this would not help me in a freaked-out moment of disorientation.

Carrying it to the lady at the counter, I ask hopefully, “Tienes otros?

She shakes her head.

Returning the gadget to its hook, I exit the tienda compass-less—with no direction—which is coincidentally how I felt at the end of my last Camino. Despite my disappointment and anxiety, I feel a gentle resignation—or is it trust?—that this is how it’s supposed to be. I’ll find my way. Just a different way. Whatever I need will be provided.

*   *   *

The right people just show up. They always do.

After eating my first filling slice of Spanish tortilla and savoring a café Americano, and after receiving a stamp in my credencial at the pilgrim office, the right people just show up.

I get a warm embrace and kiss on both cheeks from the woman running my pensión (for giving her a bar of chocolate from Oregon), and she lets me use her computer to email a message to Mary.

I see the two American girls I met on the bus ride yesterday, and they give me a friendly hello.

I run into the restaurant owner where I ate this morning. When I mention I want to buy wine, he tells me to avoid the supermarket.

Quieres un vino barato or caro?” he asks, rubbing his fingers together in midair, making the universal symbol for money.

El medio,” I reply with a grin.

Vale. Ven conmigo,” he instructs and waves me uphill. I follow him back to his now-closed-for-siesta restaurant and buy a nice bottle from his stock. Thoughtfully, he hands me a few plastic cups and even pops the cork, since I have no opener. Yes, he’s probably charged me twice what locals pay, and I really don’t care. The Camino provides.

Despite feeling a little ridiculous walking around with a open bottle of wine sticking out of my pack, I am now prepared to toast the sunset and share wine with whoever shows up.

Finally, I meet Ruby.

*   *   *

The sand couldn’t be whiter. I squint myself teary descending toward the watercolor surf of aqua, turquoise, and cobalt. The sun overhead is warm, but counterbalanced by a cool breeze from the ocean. The last time I was here, Meg was with me. When we walked the beach that time, I struggled to breathe as pneumonia set in and struggled to prevent my emotions from overflowing. Here I sang the song I had been planning for two years, reduced to tears by confusion and fear.

Let me dive into the water, leave behind all that I’ve worked for—except what I remember and believe.

And when I stand at the farthest shore, I will have all I need.

And now I’m singing it again as tears roll down my face. I knew this moment would come, but I’m still surprised by the intensity. Long-withheld sobs escape my will to contain them. Meg. Thank you for showing me how to live. I had all I needed inside of me all along. 

I know have to let her go. She was so important to me then, but I have to let her go. It’s not healthy to make someone into an idol. I’m not ready yet, but realizing the time is nearing fills me with sadness and a kind of relief.

Minutes pass as I allow the waves to soak my legs, washing over me, cleansing, healing. Everything I need is already inside of me.

Sitting in the soft, hot sand, I lose track of time. I still can’t believe I’m back. Sifting through the glittering grains, I see myriad tiny shells that have washed up with each wave. I hear heavy breathing and look up to see two huge dogs racing toward me, barking and snarling. I leap from the ground and yell at them NO! Their owners, a distance off, call to them. One runs back, but the other holds his ground, hackles up and growling. NO!! I yell again. NO!! The owners whistle, and the dog leaves, glaring back at me as he goes.

My legs feel like rubber. I sit down on the sand again, shaking. Jesus! I usually like dogs and get along with them. Why did I seem so threatening to that one? Minutes pass before I feel settled again.

My only plan now is to watch the sunset, but I’m really hoping for emotional closure before I start walking tomorrow. There are hours before I head over to the lighthouse.

As I look absently at the beach, I notice a tiny orange scallop no bigger than my thumbnail. Then a second one. Symbols of baptism and rebirth. I gather up some sand and put them in a plastic baggie for safekeeping. I’m going to carry these home with me as evidence, just like ancient pilgrims once did, that I walked to the end of the earth and survived the return journey.

As I scoop up sand, a woman wanders along the shoreline and then comes up the beach in my direction. I’m not feeling chatty, but she looks at me with a beautiful smile and says hello in English.

“I saw you sitting there looking for shells, and decided to come talk to you. Shell collectors are my favorite people.”

I smile. “Hi. I’m Jen from Oregon.”

“I’m Ruby from all over. Mind if I sit?”

Instead of the superficial conversation I feared, we dive into topics that really matter to the heart and soul. She is just finishing seven weeks of walking and has had a truly profound experience. Ruby is actually from three different countries—a true citizen of the world—and is healing old wounds in this walk. She shares that she met someone special on the Camino, but it is over now and is wondering what it all means.

“I can relate,” I tell her.

“Oh?”

“I met someone special too.” And take my time telling her the story of my three-years-ago Camino, about meeting Meg and the profound awakening that followed. “My life fell apart afterwards. It was a slow and painful journey, but eventually I learned how to open my heart and live that joy.” As I recount this tale, she remarks how my story parallels her own journey’s insights. She really understands.

“The Camino changed your life,” she says.

I sigh with relief. “It really did. I’m not sure why you showed up, Ruby. But I really needed to share this story, and feel so grateful for your listening.”

Smiling, she says, “I’m so glad I walked up to you. I just had a feeling.”

Instead of parting ways, Ruby proposes we go back into town, get some dinner, and then go to the lighthouse for the sunset. “I also really want to pick up some prosecco to celebrate,” she adds.

I’m torn. On one hand, I really wanted to do this alone—or at least I thought I did. And I tell her so.

“Spend a minute reflecting,” she says encouragingly. “You’ll know what you need.”

In a flash, the realization hits me: I don’t want to be alone. All my life, I’m keeping myself just out of reach of everyone who loves me. Isn’t this what I learned from Meg? If I want connection, I need to live it.

“Let’s do it,” I say. She grins.

On our way up the beach, the dogs leave us alone.

*   *   *

We eat, and laugh, and walk up to the highest peak to look down on the lighthouse. We descend to watch the sunset as we talk about all we’ve learned. We share my wine and her prosecco with the people around us. Hearts from all over the world are here tonight in the fading light to celebrate the end.

And in the silence of the fading day, I realize that’s all it was. That day three years ago was just a day with Meg at the end of a very, very long walk. It was not unique because sunset-watching happens here daily. It wasn’t Meg, or the place, or something ephemeral and out of my control—what was different was me. I chose to let my self-protective shield fall away for the first time in my life. I allowed my receptive, joyful, radiant heart to blossom open in the presence of another person. It was never outside of me. It was always within me. 

Yet we all make choices to dim our light. The threat of alienating my loved ones with my newfound joy and aliveness seemed too risky at the time. With titanic effort, I masked my authentic self for months—with predictable consequences on my marriage, my livelihood, and my sanity. It seemed like a safe trade-off then, but time has made me wiser.

Ruby and I laugh together, enjoy the ocean sounds and stars, and say goodnight to the pilgrims around us. Under a waning moon, we walk back arm in arm to our respective abodes for sleep. I repeat to her how grateful I am, and we agree that we’ve been Camino angels for each other today.

The right people always show up.

I feel whole. I feel grateful for everything. To the very core of my being, I know this joy is mine to carry with me on the path ahead, just like the scallop shells in my pocket.

Reverse Camino Day 3: Finisterre, finally and forever

A hard-earned, much-anticipated homecoming

Total distance on foot: 0mi / 0km
Towns traveled through: Dublin (airport), Santiago, Cee
This day in 2013: Day 46: The beginning of the end: Finisterre to Santiago

Now that Dublin’s given me an advanced degree in getting lost then found again, today’s journey will take me by plane, bus, and on foot to Finisterre—a tiny fishing village at the west end of the Iberian Peninsula. It will be hours of travel, lots of waiting, awkward connections, and at the end, a tight timeline to check in at my pensión. After a few days’ rest, Finisterre will be the starting place for my reverse Camino.

Although I’ve been to Finisterre before, it was a deliberate choice to stay somewhere unfamiliar, different from where Meg and I stayed three years ago. For distance. For understanding. To honor a precious memory. If all the connections go well today, I’ll arrive just after sunset and find my pensión in under thirty minutes before they lock up.

From Dublin to Santiago de Compostela

While waiting for my flight at Dublin airport, I strike up a conversation with a friendly-looking woman sitting beside me. Margaret is from Dublin and going to volunteer for two weeks in Santiago’s pilgrim office. She seems confident and no-nonsense. She’ll do a great job awarding compostellas to recognize each completed pilgrimage.

Before boarding, we swap contact information. She tells me, “When you get to Santiago, come look for me in the office—we’ll get coffee!”

From SCQ airport to the Santiago bus station

I’m always grateful when flights are uneventful. We land with no issues, and I can hardly believe I’m here. In Spain. After three years away.

Margaret and I walk out to the ground transportation area. The air is oppressively warm—even in the shade of the airport’s vast architectural cover. A huge crowd forms around the stop where the shuttle takes people to the city center. We wait. Everyone is talking loudly, smoking, standing closely, and managing to look both testy and bewildered.

A coach bus pulls up where we stand, and I reasonably expect to board. The driver takes one look at the crowd and tells us to move to a another spot about forty feet away. A rumor forms in the crowd that another bus, our real bus, is coming shortly. Ten minutes later, the same driver waves the group to his bus to board. For the second time, I lose my place in line as the disorderly horde moves back. Nothing makes sense.

The bus fills completely. As we roll toward Santiago, I’m hot and jetlagged and in a mild state of shock. Is this real? From the bus, even the sunlight is disorienting—brighter due to our proximity to the equator. It blanches everything from car hoods to recycling bins, casting inky shadows where it longs to reach.

On the way, we pass purpose-built buildings of cinder block and stucco with red-tile roofs. Hillsides are lush and verdant, but not even weeds dare to grow in the pavement of the small villages we pass. These two-second villages reflect the sun’s intensity from concrete sidewalks and two-story buildings, until the green countryside appears again.

The realness of it begins to land when we arrive at Santiago’s bus terminal. I remember it from the last time, this uninteresting, three-story concrete terminal smelling of diesel. Oddly, there is no clear place to buy tickets. As passengers disappear, I look around the vacant, echoing station, and my eyes follow a set of stairs to the second story. A janitor is working overhead.

Perdon, señor,” I muster my best Spanish as I ascend. “Donde se puede comprar los billetes?

He looks up from sweeping, his navy blue overalls immaculate despite the surroundings. Pointing his index finger heavenward, he says, “Go up the elevator one more floor. There you can buy your tickets.”

Sure enough, there’s another long, cavernous room plastered with posters and time tables, every wall lined by counters with closed windows. No one is there. It’s siesta time. At the very end, a single window is open. As I approach, a lanky, dark-haired young man looks up at me unamused.

“Sí?”

“I want to buy a ticket to Finisterre,” I say.

Para hoy?” Today?

Sí.” He tells me when the bus is leaving. I nod my assent.

Ira, o ira y vuelta?

Bwelta. Bwelta… I should know this vocabulary, but I can’t think. Looking at him, I stammer, “I… uh, I want to win Finisterre.” This is obviously not what I meant to say. I just want a bus to Finisterre.

“Okay. Twenty seven euros.” I pay in cash. Only later do I realize he sold me a round-trip ticket. Ira y vuelta.

With almost three hours to kill before my bus boards for Finisterre, I consider going out to explore Santiago, get something to eat, but decide to wait here. With plenty of snacks on hand, I reason, there’s no need to spend extra money. And besides, I really want my arrival in Santiago to be on foot a few days from now. Right now, I’m just passing through to the ocean.

Foregoing exploration, I buy an orange Fanta from a nearby vending machine and sit on a bench with my snacks. There are no buses and no people around. It’s pleasantly quiet. In my journal, I sketch the side view of a parked bus; its rounded glass front and antennae-like mirrors give it the air of a giant white bug.

The janitor walks by, and I raise my hand in a small wave. “I have my ticket. Gracias por la ayuda,” I thank him.

He nods with understated pleasure. “Your bus will be here at 7pm. At number 11,” he points to the bay numbers and raises his eyebrows to ask, Do you understand?

Muchas gracias!” I say, smiling.

From Santiago’s bus station to Finisterre

I just can’t believe I’m here.

As the bus rolls out of town, I catch a glimpse of the cathedral, see a few pilgrims walking along the road, and even spy a sign marking the Camino path as it intersects the road. Then familiar landmarks fall away, and it’s stop after stop until it seems like we’re never going to leave the city.

But we do. It’s evening, and the light is still bright as we make the insane zig-zagging journey across the west-most part of Spain toward the ocean. Spanish buses are consistently efficient, clean, and almost brand-new, putting American long-distance bus companies to shame.

Unfortunately, the passenger experience on this trip is not for the faint-hearted or those inclined toward motion sickness. The roads are narrow and winding. When cars approach in the opposite lane, our driver slams on the brakes. When the coast is clear, he guns it—even around the tightest of corners. I hold the seat in front of me and make the best of the three-hour ride.

Two college-aged girls are a few seats in front of me, talking animatedly in bright, open-voweled accents. I’m sure they’re American. An overweight, heavy-breathing Spanish man moves to sit in the seat behind me. I turn around to see who it is, and he leers. I scowl and turn my back. He’s giving off that vibe men have when they see women as objects rather than people, certain that foreign women are “easy.”

After my cold-shoulder treatment, the guy moves again and sits behind the American girls. As the miles pass, he starts peering between their seats as they’re looking at photos on their phones. I wonder if this creep thinks he’s going to get lucky, leaning forward, trying to catch their eye.

This won’t do.

I talk over his head, “Hi ladies! I keep trying to guess where your accent is from!”

They laugh, and we start a conversation. I move up beside them, and we talk about how they’re from Michigan, doing a semester abroad to Spanish in Salamanca, and decided to take a mini-vacation to Finisterre for a few days. They ask for suggestions of places to see. After apologizing for the intrusion on their conversation, I tell them I was looking out for them because of the creepy dude.

“He was like breathing over our shoulder,” one said.

“Just wanted you to know I’ve got your back,” I say. They seem grateful. Our conversation fades, but the guy moves to the front of the bus and gets off a half-hour later.

Back in my seat, I stare—stunned—out the window at a sight I remember: The Atlantic. The relentless wind whips the jet-blue waves into a froth all the way to the distant, misty horizon. Even viewed from the climate-controlled bus, this ocean and the moon slowly rising whips up a frenzied longing inside of me that I’m trying hard to allow. This scene is in the very marrow of my bones, part of my spiritual DNA. We’re so close to Finisterre now. This is where I left my best self behind, and where I will reclaim her once again.

From the Finisterre bus stop to my pensión

I’m here. I’m here. At the very edge of town, I stand in the fading twilight. I’m looking across the cove to the pensión where Meg and I stayed, feeling a mix of bittersweet emotion and gratitude. The wild wind whips through the palm trees above, through my hair and clothes, chilling me and making me feel so very alive. I’m really here.

Over the last three years, I can’t admit how often I have thought of this place. Visited so often in my memory, it started to seem like a place out of time, just a vivid imagining of my soul, but now the screaming gulls, the extraordinary air, and the rocks pushing against my soles tell me: I’m home. I’m home.

I’m also lost, and it’s almost dark. Making one last tour of the village, I finally locate the pension where I made my reservation. My host walks me down the street, hands me the key, and I spend the next eight hours swamped by vivid dreams and a heart full from homecoming. I’m really here. I’m really here at last.

Reverse Camino Day 2: A Tour of Dublin on Foot

Discovering Santiago in the heart of Dublin (eventually)

Total km on foot: 11.38mi / 18.31km
Towns traveled through: Santry, Coolock, Edenmore, Raheny, Fairview, Temple Bar

Dublin was always the plan. It’s not only a more affordable way to get to Spain than many European cities, it’s also where I flew through on my first Camino. I was excited to be there again.

Due to a scheduling snafu, I had an overnight stay in Dublin plus eight hours to kill before checking in to my AirBnB room (which was fantastic!) for the night. At the insane hour of 6am, my host Rebecca picked me up at the airport and brought me to her and Rob’s place. After a short shower, I even had time to take a quick nap. Just laying down on the bed felt soooo goooood after the trans-Atlantic red-eye.

When my hosts left for work, I set out. My goal was to walk downtown about five miles to St James’ Church, home to the Camino Society Ireland. It’s not far from the Guinness Brewery, and rumor had it that I could receive my very first credential stamp there. I’d printed out a map on Google and planned to return by the same route to be home in time for dinner. I thought walking there would be a breeze. Fortunately, I packed a good attitude.

There was a cool breeze and overcast skies as I set out at 8:30am from Rebecca and Rob’s cozy suburban neighborhood on foot. Within a few minutes, I ran straight into a busy highway and a frightening roundabout with no sidewalks. Cars everywhere. My Google map made it look easy: just walk along the M50 into the heart of Dublin. In reality, it became clear these instructions meant walking along the break-down lane of a major four-lane highway. No way. 

At a break in traffic, I fled across the roundabout onto the grass. There, I took stock. A more peaceful-looking street went in the opposite direction to the M50. I wasn’t sure where it led, but it was a better alternative to death! On this less-busy route, I passed a church, a sports field, and several corporation complexes. I was one of many people out walking—some with their little dogs, others headed to school in identical well-pressed uniforms, others in professional outfits talking on cell phones. How novel to be among other walkers.

Periodically, I’d look at my map for insight, but I had no idea where I was. Maybe I was headed south toward town. Eventually, I asked an older woman with a little dog on a leash how to get to Dublin city. She looked at me quizzically—first for my odd accent, then for the oddity of the question—and said, “Well, dear, you take the bus!”

“No, no,” I explained. “I want to walk there. I’m trying to walk to Saint James’ church.”

The expression on her face gave me no hope. She didn’t know how to direct me. “Good luck, then,” she said. Undaunted, I continued.

After an hour, I had a funny feeling I was near the sea. I couldn’t see it or smell it, but I sensed saltwater nearby, with boats afloat and gulls screaming. This brought to mind fond memories of my grandmother Peg, the most adventurous person in my family by a long shot. If she were here, I thought, we’d be off to the nearest pier and skip the church visit entirely. Smiling at the memory of her adventurous spirit, I carried on.

In a grassy park, I ran across a mother and teenage daughter walking together, chatting animatedly.

“Sorry to bother you,” I interrupted. “I’m trying to walk into Dublin city. Can you tell me the way?”

They looked dumbfounded, first at me, and then at each other. The mother piped up, “You take the bus there. The nearest stop is just…” she pointed off toward the road.

“Actually, I’m trying to walk there,” I said.

“Goodness. I don’t know. I think if you keep going on this path past the old folks’ home, you’ll get there. Good luck to ye.” With a small wave, they continued on with their conversation.

Well, this response settled into a trend. In Raheny, a retiree out with his dog listened as I recounted why I was walking from Santry to Dublin town. When he mentioned the bus, I started wondering just how far off course I’d gotten. We found Raheny on the map. The road I’d taken at the roundabout went east, miles away from Dublin center and toward the sea, just as I’d sensed.

“Well, if you’ve got the time, you stay on this road a very long way, and you’ll get there,” he said. “Or there’s also the bus—which should be along any minute.”

“I’ve got lots of time, so I’ll go on foot. Thank you so much for your help.” As I walked away, I had the distinct sense he watched me go. Even in a city of walkers, the distance I’d chosen was remarkable and odd.

By now, I was getting hungry and passed a pub and a bank beside it. I couldn’t make up my mind. Should I go in and eat? Should I just have the snacks I brought? This indecision signals hunger, but I went into the bank to change some of my larger bills, ate a protein bar, and continued on.

The sun had come out as I walked through yet another suburban neighborhood. As I passed a tiny, young Indian woman, she gave me a bright-eyed and friendly look. “Hi,” I said.

“Hello,” she replied.

I decided to go for it. Again. “I’m walking from here to Dublin center. Does this road take me there?”

She looked thoughtful for a moment. “Yes, it does. I’m certain.”

“Thank you! I’ve been walking all morning in the wrong direction, but I want to get to Saint James’ church. So it’s just straight on this road all the way in?”

“Oh, yes. I’m going that way now. I’ll walk with you and show you.” And she did. Camino angels are everywhere. It was lovely to have a friendly, chatty walking partner–especially because I knew I’d be alone on my upcoming Camino.

After we parted, I continued walking toward my destination, stopped at a tiny library to send an email home, then at an adorable cafe with amazing coffee. Within an hour, I was growing very tired, but the scenery started to look familiar. I’ve been here! I walked along the River Liffey and through Temple Bar, which I’d seen twelve years earlier on a solo trip to Ireland.

With a few more inquiries, I found myself standing before Saint James’ church at last. Hanging between its dramatic arched doors was a banner declaring The Camino starts here. At my feet I saw a spray-painted yellow arrow and promptly burst into tears. After hours of walking and hours more traveling from my home, here was a confirmation. I am a pilgrim. I am on the Way.

Although the welcome center and church were officially closed, a friendly woman from the office stamped my credencial. She didn’t think it was at all strange that I’d walked from Santry. “Well done!” she said and wished me a buen camino.

It was finally time to go home to Santry, but I had no qualms about the bus. Now that I was tired, the Camino angels came out in full force. At the bus stop, I struck up a conversation with a retired couple. They helpfully confirmed the route number I needed. As we chatted, I shared that I was leaving tomorrow to walk the Camino de Santiago.

“Oh, how lovely!” said the woman.

“We’ve always wanted to do that,” said the husband.

“This is my second time,” I shared. “I walked it three years ago, but now I’m returning to walk it in reverse, from the Atlantic Ocean back to the beginning in France.”

“How ambitious! You liked it the first time then!”

“I really did. It was a life-changing experience for me.”

“Have you got change for the bus?” the man asked.

Surprised, I said I had a five.

“Oh no,” he said. “That won’t do. You need exact change. Here…” He rummaged around in his pocket and then, with a palm full of jingling coins, he counted out my fare.

“I couldn’t. I’m okay, really.”

The man extended his hand and said, “There you go. This is our way of going with you to Santiago. Say a prayer for us when you get there, won’t you?”

*   *   *

On the ride back to Santry, nothing looked familiar from the bus windows. I couldn’t remember what the neighborhood or nearby intersections looked like. What if I miss it? Wasn’t there a church nearby somewhere? Seeing me stand up in the bus and look like a crazy person inspired several of my fellow passengers to help me. One man looked at my map and other passengers gave opinions on which stop I needed.

When I stepped off the bus, nothing looked familiar. No four-lane highway. No roundabout. Walking a few minutes clarified nothing. A woman out for an evening walk looked surprised when I asked for help. While we frowned together at my map, a cyclist stopped and said, “Lost, are ye?”

“Yeah,” I said. “I’m staying with some friends nearby, but I left for a walk early this morning and have kind of forgotten my way back. The turn is near a church, but I can’t seem to find it on this street.”

“There’s a lot of churches around here,” he laughed.

“It’s Blessed somebody’s chapel,” I added unhelpfully. I showed him the address.

“I know where you’re going. Follow me.” We said goodbye to the lady, crossed the wide but not-busy street, and approached an elderly man painting his fence in front of his home.

“Hello. Nice work you’re doing there,” the cyclist said. “We’ve got a lady here trying to find her way to Oak Avenue. It’s nearby, isn’t it?”

“Oh, yeah. Just on the other side of that church there.” I hadn’t recognized it from the back. I was only one street off.

“That’s just what I thought,” the cyclist replied. “Thank ye.”

Around the corner we went. Suddenly everything looked familiar. In front of us was the path I’d come from that morning, which led into the development.

“Thank you,” I said. “Thank you so much. You have no idea how much trouble you’ve saved me.”

“So, you’re good now. I’ll be on my way then.” He clipped in his shoes and rode off.

I was good now thanks to these angels. I walked along eagerly through the subdivision, and with growing dread realized I didn’t recognize Rob and Rebecca’s house. I didn’t see Rebecca’s car. And with no phone to call them, I didn’t know what to do. I walked up and down their road, muttering to myself, “Which one is Oak Avenue?” Every road in the development was called Oak something—Lane, Drive, Court, Circle… but no Avenue.

After the third pass, I was starting to get really anxious when a sketchy-looking car pulled into a driveway ahead of me. As the man got out, he looked less than thrilled to be stopped by a lost Yank, much less one needing directions. But I was desperate.

“This is Oak Avenue,” he said.

“It is?”

“Yeah,” he sighed.

“I keep looking for the house that has the white Mini. That’s my friends’ house.”

“Well there’s usually a white Mini parked two doors down. That them?”

“I don’t know. I thought they were on a side street. I have their number, do you think you could call them for me?”

He was not in the mood to be a good Samaritan, but handed me his phone.

“We’re not on a side street,” Rebecca clarified. She was at work, but said she’d had a feeling it was me calling. “We’re on the main street. Green door.” Sure enough, it was two houses down.

Embarrassed but grateful, I thanked the sketchy guy. “You were right,” I said.

He nodded and without another word walked into his house.

As I approached the correct door, it opened and a smiling teddy bear of a guy asked, “Are you Jennifer?”

“Yes! Are you Rob?”

“Yes! Welcome! Rebecca told me to expect you. Do you want some tea?”

Even though I was tired, I felt happy to have survived my crash course in being lost and thankful it was in English. I felt more confident I could do the Camino in reverse too. That night, despite every effort to stay awake, I fell into blissful and uninterrupted sleep at 7:30pm. While I would leave for Spain the next day, I was just glad to be prone, accounted for, and found at last.

Reverse Camino Day 1: Portland to Dublin

Spain awaits, and I really can’t believe I’m going back!

Total km on foot: Officially 0. Navigating through airports was probably a mile or two.
Towns traveled through: Chicago
2013 Camino contrast: How this day went 3 years ago

“Why are you walking the Camino backwards?”

Even with a year of planning and seven weeks to hone my answer, nothing rolled off my tongue when people asked. And they asked a lot.

It’s a really hard question to answer.

*   *   *

In the front of my journal, pasted next to my emergency contact information is a note from Nancy. Written in her hand on pink paper, it became both a touchstone and a rallying cry for my second journey across Spain:

Set out!

Your steps will be your words,

The road your song,

The weariness your prayers,

And in the end

The silence will speak to you.

Taken from a longer message written on a monastery wall in Majorca, every time I opened my journal, I saw these words and knew their truth. Some days the empathy brought tears to my eyes. Sometimes in astonished silence under a silvery sky, answers came. Now, as I prepared to leave, this message filled me with excitement. I’m going! I’m setting out!

*   *   *

The cats blinked at us incredulously as we rose in the dark. We spoke little as I tied my shoes and tossed my pack in the trunk. Just before turning the ignition, I remembered: my altar!

I raced inside to retrieve the worn-smooth, grey scallop fossil Mary had found on the coast. Its presence at our back door would anchor my return. I paused to set the fist-sized fossil on the cool concrete step, then added two pieces of frosty teal beach glass from Finisterre and a soapstone carved with the word FAITH from Nancy. When I touched them again in seven weeks, they would confirm that I had walked the full circuit, and my pilgrimage was truly complete.

I took a deep breath to focus. I asked for blessings on Mary and peace in my absence. Then, turning toward the garage, I walked with purpose into the darkness.

These are my first steps. I’m on the Camino now. 

*   *   *

At the airport, backpack checked with time to spare, we held hands and said the kinds of things you say when a long journey is just beginning, and no one knows how it will turn out:

I hope you have an amazing time and get exactly what you need from this.

– Thank you. So much. Me too. 

Nothing terrible will happen, but if it does, know that my last thoughts will be of you.

– Yes. (pause) But you’ll be fine. Better than.

Thank you for supporting me in doing this. It means the world to me.

– Of course. I love you.

I love you back.

It’s hard to say who started crying first. We hugged a really long time, my face pressed to her freshly-washed hair, and then she let me go. Through security, waving through tears until I was out of sight.

It was so so so hard to leave this time.

I didn’t expect that. On my last Camino, I was so excited to go—scared too—and eager to be on my own. Her emotion annoyed me then, but now I feel blessed and grateful. How much things have changed between us in three years.

*   *   *

Finding Chicago’s international terminal is like running a human-sized rat maze. I looked around as I deplaned and was immediately confused. I needed help.

A TSA agent passed me. I stopped her for directions.

“Oh, yeah. That’s hard,” she said in a Chicago accent. “Whatchew do is follow the signs to baggage claim? Then you gonna take the elevator up, cross the bridge, and then take the tram to the International Concourse.”

“Okay.” I summed up to be sure, “Elevator, bridge, tram.”

“Yup. That’s it.”

“Thank you!”

I repeated this three-part phrase as I navigated the maze. Elevator, bridge, tram. Elevator, bridge, tram. I didn’t care if anyone thought I was a muttering nut. Elevator! I found it! Bridge! There it is! Tram? No problem!

I’m on my way. I’ve set out!

In the air toward Dublin, the reality of it hit me. I’m really doing this. I’m really going back. I was returning to the place where my false shell of a life crumbled apart. The place where joy awoke and strength coursed within me—until I abandoned them on the rocky shores of Finisterre, disbelieving and afraid. And although I now feared the emotions that might arise in seeing these places again, somehow I was returning to reclaim the authentic self I’d left behind three years before.

That’s the reason I walked the Camino backwards. I would walk myself home at last. It was finally time to be whole.