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 4: Finisterre, a poem

Total distance on foot: 8mi / 13km
Towns traveled through: Around Finisterre
This day in 2013: Day 45: Being myself and Day 44: Diving into the Water and Day 44: Sunsets and Dolphins

Finisterre

The place where I sacrificed myself on the altar of the doorway,

where I stumbled across the threshold of who I thought I was

to watch the sun go to die forever

and with it

my limiting sense of self.

Finisterre

the end of the earth, the coast of death

portal to the underworld

testing souls in its dark Atlantic depths

and your whispered promise of rising again

barely audible above the relentless wind.

Finisterre

of rocks and sea, sand and tides

beneath your lighthouse I revisited that sacred ritual

a push-pull strain between my radiant soul

and a conditioned lifetime of unspoken rules

where I cast my granite heart into your healing waves

to become nothing—and everything

dissolved to granular, yet somehow solid enough to stand.

And returning

returning to you as though I’d never left

as if you’d been there all along

not just in my mind, but real real real.

Now I am here, and I remember.

I was never meant to stay.

Your strength is meant to be lived in the world.

Now, I turn eastward, to face the sunrise

returning home on an uncertain path

carrying your light inside of me.

Always

Always I was meant to do this.

Finisterre

on your dark rocks among the brutal gorse and heather

you killed my illusions

you cut away that which buffered me from pain but kept me from truly living

Today, I walk on toward the promise of dawn

Never surer of anything.

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.

Post-Camino culture shock

Is it me?

Being back home after the Camino is strange. Everything seems different when held in the light of comparison. It’s not just culture shock, it feels like priorities shock.

For example, after greeting shopkeepers across Spain with an “Hola, buenas dias.” (Every single time. This is just how it’s done.), I walk into a store in my town and am ignored. Not even eye contact. My greeting is not returned. I feel invisible.

Or, last week, when I walked for five miles around my neighborhood, exactly one person said something friendly to me in response to my hello. At least a half dozen others went out of their way to avoid meeting me or making eye contact.

Or how this week, on my way to work, a woman tailgaited me for two miles and honked when I finally made my turn. I felt so threatened by the closeness of her car to my bumper that my hands shook for fifteen minutes afterward. I actually cried in despair. Why do I matter so little? Why such a hurry? Why so angry?

The distinction between there (the Camino) and here (my town) is jarring.

In praise of the Camino life

Obviously, not everyone has been changed by my pilgrimage. It would be unreasonable and borderline insane to expect that. My glow isn’t necessarily contagious (though wouldn’t it be cool if it were?). Right now, my heart is just open and trusting and vulnerable.

If you’ve walked it, you know that the Camino isn’t utopia—there are spiritual sleepwalkers and selfish people everywhere—but it does give you an experience of how truly kind humanity can be. For weeks, I was surrounded by people caring about each other, having conversations about deep and meaningful topics, and sharing a common goal. We all tried to take good care of ourselves and looked out for each other.

In the Real World vs. Camino matchup, there’s a clear winner. It’s hard not to feel a bit despairing when comparing the two. As a remedy, I’m only going to places that are friendly. I’m driving less. I’m reaching out to loved ones near and far. These are ways to care for my tender, open pilgrim heart.

The devil you know

The other issue I’m facing post-Camino is the person I was before I left. In the weeks that elapsed before I flew to Europe, I had a mighty list of To Dos going. Honestly? I actually had two lists of To Dos—one for Camino-related tasks, and one for everyday life and work responsibilities. I had no less than 44 items on the regular To Do list and 57 on the Camino list. Dear reader, this level of focused output isn’t sane or sustainable.

At the time I thought, This is perfectly normal. Look how efficient and organized I am. I can definitely get all of this done before I go. I’ve got to. This must be done before I go. This is the voice of my Inner Tyrant. And she scares me.

For contrast, my Camino self got up around 6:30am and just walked. Later in the morning (usually after a good cup of coffee), I’d figure out where I wanted to stay for the night. No stress. My gut usually told me where I needed to be—or a pilgrim gave me a great recommendation. Day after day, I took things one moment at a time, one step at a time. I trusted there would be enough—food, beds, meaningful connection—and there always was. There was no reason to hurry or plan beyond the next few hours. I was free to enjoy the moment, the people, the place, the sensations of the moment—and I did. Over and over again. For Type-A me, this extended experience of non-attachment and not controlling was a revelation. I experienced firsthand how to live in the moment and feel deep peace with “not knowing.”

Unlike after my first Camino, this groundedness feels deep and enduring. But how do I know for sure that Manic Me won’t pop up again and take over at some point?

May the real self please stand up?

Maybe a lot of pilgrims experience this push-pull after walking. How do you integrate into life while honoring the slower, more grounded, more trusting way of being? I want to be more mindful and intentional with my time. I want to be less tech-obsessed without alienating my loved ones. I want to be productive without writing scary To Do lists.

One step at a time, I’m finding a way forward that isn’t exactly graceful, but it’s honest and true to my Camino’s gifts. Starting with body and home care, I’m developing regular rituals for maintenance and nourishment. Since last week, I’ve started adjusting my work schedule to create sanity and healthier boundaries. My next focus will be on meaningful connection with loved ones and setting aside writing time. It’s coming.

A note on writing: In case you didn’t know, I’m working on a memoir about the personal transformation that took place in my life after my first Camino. If you want to be kept posted about that project, here’s a link to sign up for news and info.

In any case, shifting back into “life mode” after my second Camino has been so much easier and less stressful than the first time. No comparison. I’m enjoying the process so much more.

And

If you have thoughts or insights on how you shifted back into life after significant travel or other life-changing experiences (or tips for dealing with aggressive tailgaters), I’d love to hear about them! We’re in this together, pilgrims.

(tap-tap) Is this thing on?

I’m back!

Back on terra firma, back in my own home, in my own bed, and feeling so so so grateful for so many things–life, love, and my blessed pillow. The seven-week backwards journey from Finisterre to Saint Jean Pied de Port was wonderful, weird, and full of characters, stories, and insights I’m eager to share.

At the end of my first Camino in 2013, I’d left a piece of myself–like a few spiritual ribs or a soulful femur–out at Fistera’s lighthouse, overlooking the moody Atlantic. For three years, these very real parts of me have sat out on the windswept rocks like a forgotten umbrella, waiting to be reclaimed.

The last time I was there, my life felt split in two, as I faced an immense decision about who I was to be in the world. We all come to this point eventually: Do I keep investing energy in keeping up the act or finally risk being myself? Should I keep playing the role of peacemaker and chameleon, or could I be the authentic, trusting, happy, loving, open person I discovered myself to be as I walked across Spain? I really didn’t know how I could do the latter without upsetting friends, business partners, family. So I set aside a vital, newly-discovered sense of self that windy June day.

On this return, I went back to that very place to reclaim my abandoned parts. I went to become whole again, completely–and then walk with my full, real self back to where I had started in France. Most of all, I walked back across Spain in order to bring this loving, authentic self home–back to my life, my friendships, my work, my family, my marriage. It was finally time.

And this I have done, I’m happy to say.

What a journey! I can’t wait to tell you all about it.

Truthfully, I’m a little rusty on the technology front! I seem to have forgotten how to type. It’s been eight weeks since I’ve spent more than ten minutes on social media. In fact, my email account was temporarily suspended halfway through my walk due to “suspicious activity” (it was me, using coin-op computers along the Way). It was a surprising relief to be tech-free for so long.

Anyway, rest assured: my reverse Camino tales, insights, joys, frustrations, and reflections are all on their way… in time. Just like on the Camino.

In the meantime, please know how grateful I am to you. Thank you so much for your comments, thoughts, prayers, love, support, and enthusiasm for this spiritual adventure that is the Camino. Thank you for cheering me on–and in some cases, cheering up my wife, Mary, in my absence. To be held in your mind and heart for so long is a gift to me, and I thank you. I hope your life is unfolding in love and trust.

Sending much love and Camino dust,
Jen